7/14/2007 12:00 AM
It's not just the once-in-a-lifetime training that brought almost 700 Spanish speakers to Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station this week.
Participants at the annual Spanish Fire Training School, many of whom paid their own way, said the weeklong training brings together the close-knit community of firefighters in an event that is unlike any other.
"We're from different countries, but we all have this one thing in common. Here, we are like a family," said Darys Tellerias Guirado, a volunteer firefighter from the Dominican Republic. "This feeling is priceless - you have to live it to understand it."
Guirado was one of just six women out of the 691 participants who came from Spanish-speaking countries in Africa, South and Central America and Europe for the 41st annual event. This year, participants traveled from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela and the United States, according to Texas Engineering Extension Service spokesman Jay Socol.
For the first time this year, seven students from Equatorial Guinea, a Spanish-speaking country in West Africa, attended the school, Socol said. The students are sponsored by Marathon Oil, he said, which is sending a different group to each of the three fire schools set for this summer at TEEX.
Guirado started saving money to attend the school almost three years ago after hearing about it from a friend.
"All those years I wanted to come, and now I'm finally here," she said, smiling. "But this isn't easy. It's really hard - physically and mentally."
For five days in the Texas heat, firefighters battle flames produced in TEEX's extensive training facility meant to simulate chemical fires, oil-spill fires, natural gas fires, interior fires and more.
The facility is the largest of its kind, officials said.
More than 200 Spanish-speaking volunteer instructors from 18 countries lectured at the school this year, including several from South Texas, Socol said.
Alfonso Barajas Rodriguez, a volunteer firefighter from Monterrey, Mexico, has been coming to TEEX for 30 years, he said in Spanish. He first attended as a student in 1977, became an instructor three years later and has come annually ever since, even when he had no money to get here, he said.
Rodriguez said he once had to hitchhike to Laredo from Monterrey and then catch a ride to San Antonio before meeting up with a friend who brought him to College Station.
Over the past 30 years, Rodriguez said, he has worked as an industrial, municipal and volunteer firefighter. But he said TEEX training has been the most important experience of his firefighting career.
"I'll retire at 75," he said. "But I'll keep coming here until I die."
For the past few years, Rodriguez has brought a group of firefighters from his hometown to the training field. This time, 35 firefighters saved for a year to raise the $1,300 to pay for the tuition and the tour bus Rodriguez rents.
"Last year, we took 17 TVs back with us on the bus to Mexico," he said, laughing. "Not to mention the computers and Nintendos."
Tony Beckwith, a professional translator from Austin, has worked with the TEEX Spanish Fire School for the past four years.
Beckwith said the feeling of community among the Spanish-speaking firefighters is one of the most important experiences of the school.
"If you're a firefighter, there are no boundaries, no frontiers - every other firefighter is a brother or a sister. It brings a sense of camaraderie. They are not concerned with gender, skin color, economic status or where you're from," he said. "It's like a perfect example for how the world should really be."
Although many volunteer firefighters from rural districts must pay their own way, Beckwith said it's worth the sacrifice.
"They can learn something here they wouldn't learn otherwise," he said. "For many, this is the first step to getting the fire equipment for their community."
The Spanish Fire Training School is just the beginning of the summer's activities at Brayton Fire Training Field.
Officials are expecting more than 500 firefighters and safety personnel during the Industrial Fire Training School, which begins Monday.
The Municipal Fire Training School, which begins July 22, will be the largest of its kind in the world, officials said, with more than 2,500 firefighters and 500 volunteer instructors from throughout the U.S.
It may be hard to match the enthusiasm of the Spanish-school firefighters in the coming weeks. Guirado said the comradeship of the Spanish Fire Training School transcended language and cultural barriers.
"This is what makes being a firefighter unique - if you say you're a firefighter anywhere in the world, you will have a family who supports you," she said.