Rurally Speaking: Down South Rural—Way Down South

By Carl J. Haddon

Most who read this column have some involvement or interest in the rural fire service and its community. Here in the United States, we often find ourselves with similar rural challenges of departmental issues like staffing, morale, volunteer retention, training, and the seemingly ever shrinking department and district budgets. Costs of goods and services continue to rise, and our budget numbers and revenues never seem to quite keep time with our needs. All the while, we continue to work hard to mitigate our financial and operational challenges, so as to be the best that we can be for those we serve, while keeping our members as safe and as well trained as possible.

For those of you who work tirelessly toward bettering your rural department, and have been on committees for, or dealt with some of the rural challenges listed above, I offer you the opportunity to buckle your seat belt, and join me on assignment here in rural Costa Rica. In the shadow of FDIC International, take in some of this country’s rural fire service challenges, and think of what you might do to help mitigate these daily operational issues. Perhaps your own plight may not seem so tough as you ride along with me through the harrowing streets of the pacific coast of rural Costa Rica.

My brother and sister bomberos (firefighters) here in Costa Rica are as passionate about their craft as you and I, or any dedicated volunteer or career firefighter anywhere in the world. The climate here is very tropical, with high humidity and temperatures that average in the mid to upper 80s most of the year. Here, there are basically two seasons; hot and dry. November to beginning of April is the hot season and April through October is the hot season. Wearing traditional bunker or turnout gear here is a real treat. More important is the availability of water. Hydrants outside of “cities” are few and very far between. Drafting water during the dry season can be challenging at best. When you can find a body of water to draft from, you often find yourself sharing that body of water with unhappy cocodrillos (crocodiles). No, I’m not kidding.

Typical residential construction is concrete, cement block, and stucco walls; hardwood (teak wood) framed roofs with tongue and groove teak ceilings covered with metal roofing. Terra cotta tile and plastic simulated Terra Cotta tile panels are also used for roofing material. Residential fires here typically consume the roof but most often leave the cinder block and concrete filled walls intact. There are no house markers or physical addresses in Costa Rica. Some towns have some street signs.

Although the main highway is paved and in really good shape, the ancillary roads and streets are mostly dirt and gravel in varying states of repair, especially based on the time of year. In the rainy season, it rains so hard that windshield wipers don’t help at all. Flooding is a regular occurrence. You can imagine what that does to these gravel roads. (See photo). Bridges are a whole other bag of cats. The bridges here range from modern structures on the main highway that span rivers, much like you see every day, to some very interesting “structures” that need to be experienced to really be appreciated. And, none of the bridges that I’ve encountered here have any kind of load rating posted on either side of them.


Apparatus operators will encounter a number of potential road hazards that include some of the following:

  • Brahma bulls and cows.
  • Four- to five-foot-long Iguanas.
  • Crocodiles.
  • Coati. These look like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater.
  • “Interesting” bridges.

Apparatus found in firehouses here in this part of the central Pacific coast, consist mostly of late model commercial cab (two- seat), shorter wheelbase, Class A engines that we would typically classify as multivocational—they do it all. I am old enough to remember the days, but I have to share with you that I was blown away to see an engine roll out of the house with two kids riding the tailboard without any kind of safety straps! Having experienced their rural roads down here, I can’t even imagine these young souls riding the tailboard over some roads that would make a desert off-road race vehicle squeal.

The second type of vehicle found on apparatus floors is a command/quick-response/chief’s vehicle that is a large SUV with lots of available seating. The available seating in these vehicles is relevant for a couple of reasons that I will get to in a minute. I’ve also seen a number of quick-attack/wildland trucks, which are standard cab, one-ton pickup-style flatbeds with skid type tanks of 300 gallons and pumps. The interesting challenge about responding to grass fires here is a snake called a “Fer-De-Lance,” which is a venomous snake that resembles a rattlesnake, except its venom is hotter, and it doesn’t have a rattle that will warn you of its presence. It lives and hunts in tall dry grass.

Interesting to note is that even with the humidity and the lush green jungle surroundings, many of these plants are highly combustible because of their high oil content, such as different types of palm and coconut trees. They go up fast and very hot. Burning palm leaves in the wind like to cause crowning of other nearby palms.

With a few photos, and a basic picture in your mind of some of the dispatch, topography, animal, and weather conditions that pose challenges, I can tell you first hand that these guys don’t have it easy. That being said, how about the final challenge of having some of your volleys respond to the station on their bicycles because they have no car? Any questions about why the chief cars need to have extra seats?

For those who are coming to FDIC this year, please make a point to come by my “Understanding New Vehicle Technology” class on Wednesday afternoon, from 1500 to 1715 hours. If for nothing else, I’d like to shake your hands, and say thanks for reading the columns. Hope to see you in Indy!

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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