Are Cement Homes Safer In The Event Of A Fire?

When Clyde Coles first moved to Panama with his wife he was really uncomfortable living in a house with bars on the windows.  Being a firefighter and paramedic for 30 in Texas, according to him “bars on the windows are a death trap.”  “There’s no way for us to get out and no way for a firefighter to get in to rescue the inhabitants should a fire occur.”  And when everyone he met assured him that “houses here can’t burn since they’re all made of cement,” he knew he needed to clear up some misconceptions.     But first a visit to a local fire station was in order to see just what they do have to offer here.  At the bombero station in Chame, he was greeted by two male firemen who were proud to show him around.  They explained that the two of them staffed the fire station in Chame and it was equipped with a rescue truck that can hold 300 gallons of water. Clyde was impressed that the rescue truck also has a “jaws of life” which is used to rescue victims out of wrecked cars.  They also mentioned that the Coronado station has a tanker truck and San Carlos has a pumper.  The three stations work together during large fires.  

The firefighters here work a 24 hour shift then have 24 hours off, a bit different than Clyde’s old schedule of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Since the staff sleeps at the station it includes all the comforts of home like a dormitory with beds, a living area, kitchen and bathroom.  

During the time he was at the Chame station he also met two young ladies that worked as the paramedics with the same hours as the men.  They proudly opened up the ambulance and let him crawl inside.  What he found inside was the exact same equipment found on every ambulance in the U.S.  They have an EKG/defibrillator to re-start hearts, intubation equipment and a full stock of medications, a pulse oximeter to check oxygen levels, a suction machine and Doppler Ultrasound for maternity cases. He also found a stretcher with a backboard and C-collars ready for quick deployment.  He asked them where they usually transport the patients and was told that for minor emergencies they go to the hospital in San Carlos.  But for more serious cases the patients are taken to the hospital in La Chorrera for full trauma care.

What Clyde took away from his visit to the fire station is this.  “The bomberos have the equipment to extricate us from our vehicles when a major traffic accident occurs and medically, they have the equipment needed to stabilize, treat and transport us to a hospital in an emergency situation.”  “But in the event of a house fire, we’re pretty much on our own.”  He went on to explain that neighborhoods in Panama are lacking in fire hydrants and without sufficient water, equipment and manpower, it’s difficult for the bomberos to affect a quick rescue and fire extinguishment.  

He then concluded:  “It’s true that cement houses can’t burn but the contents can.” For example, let’s say there’s an electrical fire in the living room of a house that begins in the middle of the night while the inhabitants are asleep.  The fire moves up the curtains that easily catch on fire, the burning curtains fall down on the couch and the fire soon spreads out to the end tables, books and other contents.  The burning produces flammable gases and with enough heat the gases themselves catch on fire, and this phenomenon is called flashover.   With a contents fire in one room, the smoke quickly spreads to the rest of the house.  “Fire doesn’t usually kill people, it’s the smoke that kills people,” says Clyde.

Fire safety begins with ourselves and we all need to think in advance how we’d get out of the house in the event of a fire.  Clyde said,  “We have four metal doors in our house that we keep dead bolted at night for the sake of security.” “Our planned exit route is a side door near the master bedroom so we keep a key nearby at all times, just in case we have to exit in an emergency.”  And it’s also a good idea to keep your cell phone next to your bed in case you need to call for help.  Remember, smoke will NOT wake up a person who is asleep.  According to Clyde, “ we should have a smoke detector directly outside of the bedrooms and be sure to change the batteries in the smoke detectors twice a year to keep them in working order.”

Another must have is an ABC fire extinguisher in the kitchen, best placed between the door and the stove.   It’s also a good idea to have a large pan lid at the ready to cover grease fires on the stovetop.   As a final precaution keep a long garden hose on hand that can be brought into the house as a means of putting out the fires.  Don’t forget to protect yourselves with homeowner’s insurance that includes fire and theft.  And if you’re a renter pick up a policy that covers contents only which is very affordable.

Some of the more common causes of fires in the home are as follows:  cooking fires, candles, careless smoking, bad wiring, electrical equipment, flammable liquids, Christmas trees, barbeques, and propane bottles.  

Some good news was recently announced locally regarding upgrading fire equipment.  The National Assembly approved allocating 14 million dollars to upgrading equipment in the fire departments of Panama annually.  This will allow the purchase of more fire trucks, ambulances, and equipment, as well as provide additional staffing and more training.

But having a top-notch fire department is not cheap and the following is an example of what things cost in the U.S.  To outfit just one firefighter it costs around $7,000 to provide him with his protective equipment.  At a typical dwelling fire in Corpus Christi, Texas the scene would include:  3 pumper trucks at a cost of 2 million dollars, 1 ladder truck costing 1 million dollars, lights and air truck $600,000, the Chief’s car $40,000 and a staff of 12 firefighters for a minimum amount of $84,000.  The total cost of the equipment needed for one fire would be over 3 million dollars and this doesn’t even include the cost of labor.  So if a large country such as the United States is struggling with the cost of adequate fire coverage, just imagine what a tiny country like Panama is going through?

We all need to remember that we chose to move to Panama and therefore must assume some responsibility for ourselves.  Have a plan, write and memorize a script in Spanish describing how to get to your home along with a way to identify it too.  The script should include your name, the reason for your call, what town you live in and any other details that may assist them and coming to your location.

“A few months back there was a grass fire in my neighborhood at night and it looked huge,” explained Clyde.  “I called 911 on my cell phone and when the dispatcher answered I was asked if I needed bomberos or ambulance?”  “Within minutes the bomberos showed up and quickly put out the fire.”  “My wife and I were quite impressed,” Clyde exclaimed!  He also added that the firemen at the Chame station told him to call 103 in the event of a fire and 911 for medical emergencies.  

In the U.S. it’s common for people to stop by fire stations with home baked goods as a way to say thanks to those that put their lives on the line everyday. A little appreciation and a nice gesture go a long way anywhere in the world in any language.