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Local fire fighters lend a hand to Los Bomberos

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By Teresa Herriman

The Courier-Herald

Jeff and Vanessa Palensky are busy. The husband-and-wife team has been escorting Guatemalan firefighters called Los Bomberos Voluntarios from one western Washington fire department to another to collect surplus medical equipment and supplies.

Recently, Jeff, a firefighter/paramedic at East Pierce Fire and Rescue, and Vanessa, a paramedic for East Grays Harbor Medic One, stopped at East Pierce's main fire station with three members of Los Bomberos to pick up donations the Guatemalans will take back to their country.

The Los Bomberos team included Luis Hernandez of Company 69; Jose Alfredo Coronado, Comandante de Bomberos and third in charge of the massive department; and National Directory member Chief Juan Carlos Cortez, who holds a position similar to a U.S. fire commissioner.

As the Palensky's began moving the equipment, Ron Quinsey, a paramedic in Lakewood, explained the program.

The connection between Washington state and the Guatemalan firefighters, he said, began seven years ago with Central Pierce Fire Department Capt. Paul Embleton, who became involved in 1995 when he visited Guatemala with the Heal the Children program. There he met volunteer firefighters and witnessed the poverty and lack of emergency services in that country. Old pickup trucks were being used as ambulances and little to no emergency medical care was being provided.

The Republic of Guatemala is in Central America, southeast of Mexico between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. The country, about the size of Tennessee, has a population of more than 14 million people, according to the 2004 census. Of the 6,000 firefighters serving in 115 fire stations, 90 percent are volunteer, Hernandez said.

When Embleton returned to the United States, he began contacting local fire departments for donations and enlisting fellow firefighters and paramedics to travel to Guatemala to help provide needed training.

The Parkland/Spanaway Rotary Club assisted in the funding of the project. They were later joined by several Rotary Clubs throughout the United States to provide a matching grant program.

East Pierce Fire and Rescue contributed two ambulance gurneys, a couple of automated defibrillators, two stair chairs used to transport patients from upper floors to ambulances, and some airway management equipment, according to Russ McCallion, assistant chief of Emergency Medical Services at East Pierce.

All of the donated equipment is surplus, most of which is no longer warrantied in the United States and cannot be used in this country. Typically equipment no longer used by the department is sold or donated, McCallion said. Despite the fact the equipment has negligible salvage value in this country, it still can be useful in Guatemala.

This is the second time Guatemalan fire officials have made the trek to Washington to pick up vehicles and supplies. In 2000, a group drove two fire engines and a couple of buses of fire equipment back to Guatemala.

Washington firefighters also provide training, traveling to teach emergency service techniques to medics in Guatemala.

"Paul saw a glaring need for medical training," Quinsey said.

During Embleton's first humanitarian trip to Central America he was asked to teach a class, Quinsey said. He ripped the sheets from his hotel bed and taught splinting techniques.

Since then, more than 50 instructors have made nearly 30 trips to Guatemala, including the Palenskys, who have provided rescue and emergency medical training for the volunteer firefighters. The former students are perpetuating the training programs by becoming the instructors for others. In fact, the training classes have become so successful, the first university-certified emergency medical technician training was offered at the San Carlos University as part of a three-year technical degree program.

The idea, Quinsey said is based on the "teach a man to fish" model.

"These are our fishing poles," he said, as he gestured to the mound of donated equipment being loaded into a truck for the grateful Bomberos.

Teresa Herriman can be reached at therriman@courierherald.com

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