Braving the blaze and quelling flames with Manila’s firefighters

At beck and call, Metro Manila’s firefighters press on through the flames to safeguard society.

Seldom do fires come with a warning.

In these life-threatening situations, the citizenry desperately call on the first line of defense—our heroes clad in thick fireproof garments, sirens announcing their arrival—our firefighters. As first responders to emergencies, these brave individuals are trained to handle these adversities with a calm mind and quick, practiced movements.

But there is more to these heroes than their iconic red livery. Along with laying their lives on the line each time they leave the fire station, firefighters give their whole selves to extend a helping hand to those who need it. 

Getting the line started 

At the Paco Fire Station, firefighters are expected to wake up at 5 am sharp. After engaging in physical fitness activities, they are then expected to clean within and around the station before taking breaks to bathe and eat. 

While the daily customs of these hydrant heroes seem mundane, catastrophes do not have a schedule. “Sometimes, while they are eating or while they are taking a bath, a fire alarm comes,” Inspector Luke Challongen of Paco Fire Station shares. Dropping everything for a shot at saving a life or preventing any further damage proves to be one of the maintained mentalities for these frontrunners. 

On the regular, fire stations in the Metro are on the edge of their seats for distress calls may come through the comms. At the Pasay Fire Station, FO3 Alexander Gregorio Domingo reports that there are at least three dials the house attends to daily. “Here in Pasay, mula nung July last year, I experienced at least five emergency cases.” Meanwhile, at the Paco Fire Station, fire incidents are received around twice or thrice in a day; however, some days have none at all. 

When they do receive a distress call, the responders follow a running card—the systematic means of determining the appropriate reinforcements needed for the increasing intensity of the call. 

Without waiting for any increased alert level, the nearest station will respond to the scene as quickly as possible. After a swift and thorough assessment of the situation at hand, no time is wasted. “We call the shots on the scene,” Challongen recounts, with the rollouts for backup following directives from the district office. While the goal is containment at first wave, nearby stations will be a moment away from zipping on their turn-outs and slipping into their rubber boots.

Trial by fire

Although many believe that the only enemies that firefighters have to face are the flames, our brave frontliners are no strangers to contending with more than just the blazing heat. “‘Pag bumbero ka, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades,” Senior Officer 1 Freedence Luna, of Paco Fire Station, imparts seriously, “You need to be able to cope [with the] changes, lalo nitong pandemic.” 

(As a firefighter, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. You need to be able to cope [with the] changes, especially in this pandemic.) 

But for the cogs to keep turning, a fire station must receive a sufficient budget to maintain the station’s upkeep and keep equipment working. Unfortunately, this is not the reality, as Challongen admits that the amount they receive is not enough for proper allocation across all departments, especially for equipment. “These protective equipment that we have, some [personnel] were not given one,” Challongen divulges. “So we share; if I’m off-duty, [they] use mine. Even if it’s big, at least you’re protected.”

Meanwhile, Fire Officer 1 Brian Velasquez of the Pasay Fire Station confesses that one of the hardest challenges he’s had to go through is being away from his family. He vividly remembers occurrences when he was forced to choose between fulfilling his duties as a fireman and spending the already limited time he had with his family. “May mga responsibility tayo na kailangan punan bilang isang firefighter, and at the same time, meron din tayong family—so it’s your choice,” he firmly opines. 

(We have responsibilities that we have to fulfill as firefighters, and at the same time, we have families.)

In a field where the first image that comes to mind is of a man in uniform, the female firefighter may have a vastly different experience. Fire Officer 1 and Admin Staff Olive Pitun of the Pasay Fire Station mentions that more than 60 percent of the firefighters at their bureau are male. She attests, “Hindi mo matatanggal [ang gender discrimination]…pero hindi naman tumitigil ‘yung laban regarding dyan.” 

(You can never totally remove [gender discrimination]…but the fight against it hasn’t stopped.)

However, she is quick to emphasize that at the end of the day, they are all firefighters who underwent the same required training and challenges, a sentiment that Velasquez agrees with. Pitun reiterates, “Mayroon kanya-kanyang departments, [so] meron ding part ng women where they will excel.” 

(There are different departments, so there are also parts for women where they will excel.) 

To extinguish doubt

At times, though, a firefighter’s struggles aren’t found in matters of bureaucracy and budget, but in the public’s perception of their work. 

One of the most common misconceptions about the firefighting industry is the level of training and education needed. On top of the rigorous physical training, firefighters are actually required to have Bachelor’s degrees following the professionalization of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) in 2004. Luna, for example, is a nursing graduate, while Challongen holds degrees in Civil Engineering and Sanitary Engineering.

Another typical misunderstanding is that firefighters are simply sitting around waiting for a fire to happen. “During the time of leisure, we also think of pre-fire disaster planning,” Pasay Station Fire Officer 3 Alexander Domingo remarks in Filipino. Aside from planning for disasters, he explains that firefighters also engage in fire safety inspections and serve as first responders to other man-made or natural calamities.

These misconceptions about firefighting can also hinder fire officers from being viewed as respectable public servants. Challongen describes Oplan Ligtas na Pamayanan, a BFP program to map out informal settlements by measuring roads and checking electrical fixtures for potential fire hazards. Yet, the firefighters aren’t always met with a warm welcome from the community’s residents. “To them, they see us as [anti-drug agents], that’s why they refuse our entry even if we explain,” he expresses. 

Charging bravely into the flames

The National Capital Region is a battlefield for Manila firefighters, so entering the firefighting service is no easy task. “You need to prepare yourself, physically and mentally,” Luna cautions in Filipino, “When you’re inside the training center, in those six months, you probably only have one or two days for going out.” 

Regardless if one is a freshly minted fire officer or a veteran commander, a firefighter is not alone in their burden. “We are like family. We help each other,” Challongen holds. “You know that someone is at your back and that [they] will not leave you behind. You know that you are safe because you are [with] family.” 

But above all, what makes and moves a firefighter is a deep desire for service. “We love our job, and we are dedicated to…protect the community,” Challongen proudly declares. Amid the fervently fiery battleground of the highly dense Metro Manila, this dedication is not to be taken lightly. In the steady hearts of firefighters, there is true courage to be found.

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