Hundreds of firefighters from 19 Spanish-speaking countries are in College Station this week for instruction at TEEX’s Annual Fire Training School’s Spanish courses.
On Thursday afternoon, students and volunteer instructors could be seen gathered around a wide variety of props at the Brayton Fire Training Field, each in firefighting gear of varying shades of yellow. Students and instructors are required to bring their own gear to the school, and each of the 375 attendees carries a unique set of tools, clothing and firefighting experience upon arriving.
“The students that come to our Spanish school each summer are very dedicated to getting better and making their communities safer,” said Texas A&M Engineering Extension spokesperson Casey Richardson. “And they sacrifice a lot to do that. They may not have the resources that students in Texas have, but they do what they need to in order to get this training.”
TEEX hosts three week-long fire training courses each summer that draw thousands from across the globe to College Station. One week is dedicated to municipal firefighting and taught in English. Another week is dedicated to an English-speaking class on industrial firefighting. A third week is dedicated to a combination of industrial and municipal firefighting, with all courses taught in Spanish.
Students can learn basic, entry-level firefighting as well as advanced and specific skill sets. As the years have progressed, Richardson said, TEEX has been able to add more advanced level Spanish courses. This year, for the first time at the Spanish-speaking school, TEEX has offered what’s known as a “Rescue 4” class, where firefighters are taught how to breach a damaged building to rescue trapped victims, all while rappelling from a wire.
Eulando Pinero has been a guest instructor at TEEX’s Spanish-speaking school since 2009. He serves as fire chief for the volunteer fire department of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, and was a student at the school in 2005, after the Puerto Rican government sent him to Texas to receive hazmat certification. Because of his bilingual capabilities, he was the first Spanish-speaking student to receive rescue certification, as most rescue courses are only taught in English. Now he is able to pass on his knowledge to other firefighters.
“We started this year a new level of rescue course for Spanish-speaking people called ‘Rescue 4,’” he said. “It’s more challenging for me to teach this, because we have people coming back who have been through Rescue 3, and they hope I will teach them something new and more advanced.”
Though scaling a building by wire while holding a jackhammer or cutting tool may seem unusual, Pinero said that at home he has been in several unique situations where advanced rescue training was critical.
“In Puerto Rico, we had a big explosion in a building once, with something we never expected,” he recalled. “Two upper levels were completely OK, but the lower levels were destroyed. So we had victims on top and underneath, and we had to help both at same time.”
In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and the government opened a large dam that flooded a city. Pinero and his firefighting colleagues rescued people trapped on their rooftops, surrounded by water.
“That operation took us 20 hours to get them out on boats and big trucks that could go through water,” he said. “I was able to do that because I’d had swift water rescue classes here at TEEX.”
He noted that instructing can be difficult, as the students from 19 different Central and South American countries speak in such different dialects and come from different cultures. Richardson noted that some students from more stable countries or larger cities have more advanced knowledge and experience with equipment, while students from poor and isolated areas might not even be provided with oxygen masks and tanks when fighting fires at home. While most students to the Spanish-speaking school come from Mexico, firefighters from countries such as Ecuador, Panama, El Salvador, Venezuela and Guatemala attend.
Recently, attendance to Spanish-speaking classes has dropped, both because of economic struggles in certain countries and difficulties in gaining access to the United States.
“One of problems is issues with getting visas. There was a decision made in 2015 that would require all students get M1 visas, which are educational visas, the same that Texas A&M students [from out of country] need,” said TEEX’s division director Chief Robert Moore. “We were able to turn that around this year where you could have a B1 visitors visa to attend fire school.”
Even though the visa acquisition process has somewhat smoothed this year, students must still pay their own way. Often with Spanish-speaking students, their home fire departments don’t have the money to send them to TEEX like American fire departments often do. Each man or woman spends their own money to attend.
“I go around and talk to every class, every classroom, with a translator, and I ask them how things are going; What can we do to improve their experience here?” Moore said. “... With this group there is a little more of bond I have, just knowing all the effort it takes them to be here.”
TEEX’ English-speaking schools will take place over the next two weeks, with thousands of firefighters from across the country and beyond in attendance. To learn more, visit teex.org.