What comes to mind when you hear the word “frontliner”?
Given that we are currently going through a global pandemic, the frontliners you are most probably thinking about are the doctors, nurses, and other medical staff who have risked their lives to provide the world with essential services that society cannot survive without.
In this case, you aren’t wrong.
But there is also another group of frontline workers that we seldom hear stories about during these trying times. Think of the people who brave the flames, who spend hours taming the fires that burn down the physical structures governing our day-to-day lives — in the past year alone, have we not heard about accidents that have ravaged homes, malls, and even hospitals?
Fire does not wait for a rampant virus to die down before it consumes, so how have our local firefighters endured?
Here, in Cebu, there exists a dedicated volunteer group that strives to make a difference by saving lives and battling fire — the Cebu Filipino-Chinese Volunteers Fire Brigade (CFCVFB). Established in 1979 by representatives of the Filipino-Chinese United Community, this fire-fighting organization has responded to hundreds — if not thousands — of fire alarms since its inception, sustained with the funds and efforts of the local Chinoy community. Its members, which count doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, and more among its ranks, are composed of volunteers who devote their free time to making Metro Cebu a safer place.
An interview with one such individual has allowed us a peek into the grueling role. Dr. Jacob Tanco, a double frontliner who also serves as a resident physician at the Cebu Doctors’ University Hospital, shares with CHiNOY TV his eye-opening insights and experiences as a Filipino-Chinese volunteer firefighter.
When did you first join the Cebu Filipino-Chinese Volunteers Fire Brigade? What made you decide to join it?
I started my training in my second year of pre-med back in 2012. Answering the question of what made me decide to join has always been somewhat difficult. In truth, I learned about the fire brigade when my grandfather Manuel R. Torres Sr. was sick, and we spent months living in the same room. He lived such a colorful life. In those few months, he told me about a group of “fire volunteers,” who would help out in times of need. It would be prudent to tell you that, at this point in time, I didn’t really know what that meant.
When I thought of the words “volunteer firefighter,” the picture that I got was that of a couple of guys in safety vests helping out the real firefighters by assisting in traffic or handing out drinking water. After my grandfather had passed, a family friend got word out to me asking if I wanted to volunteer for the fire brigade with him. I thought, “Why not?” Passing around water didn’t seem like a really big job, and I thought some form of community service would do me some good.
I forgot about the application I sent in until, one day, I received a message calling me in for an interview. I went to the station and saw a fleet of firetrucks resting quietly in the biggest garage I’ve ever seen in my life. To put the icing on the cake, a volunteer who was chatting us up and telling us all about the training we would have to endure was suddenly called into action. I witnessed for the first time what I was getting myself into.
Can you describe your responsibilities as a volunteer firefighter? What kind of work is involved?
Formal training lasts roughly a year. We trained every Sunday morning and some Wednesday nights. Training was always early — waking up at 4:30 AM to be up for a 5-kilometer run by 5:00AM was just one of the most difficult things to get used to.
Training was also progressive. We moved from fire hose basics to fire operation and suppression, basic life support, ladder drills, forcible entry, and more — everything that a young firefighter needed to stay safe on the fireground. This was followed by a practical and written exam. Getting that far meant being rewarded with a probationary status that involved overnight station duties, where we would get to mingle in a more brotherly manner with the other volunteers. Graduation came six months after that if you were deemed fit for it.
Our duties as a regular [volunteer] involved overnight station duties, where we were asked to be in by 8 PM and out in the morning as early as we needed to be. This entailed things like radio checks, truck inventory, and others to make sure everything was ready to go in an instant. No one there was a full-time firefighter. That meant that we could only man the stations during the nighttime. During the day, if we received a call, volunteers from all over Cebu would converge at the base to be ready for deployment as fast as they could. On scene, we would waste no time in getting involved. We work closely with the Bureau of Fire Protection R7 (BFP-VII) to coordinate attack lines and methods of extinguishment.
What is your most memorable experience as a firefighter?
This is tough because every fire is memorable. The most memorable one yet, though, has to be the Metro Ayala fire in January 2018. We received the call on a Friday night at around 9:30 PM, then we were on the ground within five minutes. The fire lasted until Sunday around noon. I was there for three shifts — it was the single longest fire response in my career. We worked closely with the BFP and controlled the fire from within using our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while other members of our crew ventilated exterior walls.
It was surreal seeing a place so familiar — a place I’ve spent so many hours with friends and family — up in flames, filled with smoke so thick I couldn’t even see my gloved hand in front of my face.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work as a firefighter?
The COVID pandemic had our fire station grounded for most of the quarantine. We couldn’t, in good conscience, send out our guys while knowing the incalculable risk that our level of community exposure puts their family at. I couldn’t, as a doctor, put our guys out there without adequate knowledge on how to circumnavigate the threat through personal protective equipment (PPE) that would hold up to the rigors of firefighting.
When we slowly reopened our operations, we had very strict response protocols to ensure the highest level of safety for our guys. Crews were limited to two firefighters per engine, elastomeric respirators had to be worn at all times, and strict gear decontamination was followed by equally strict personal decontamination. This meant that every time you respond to a fire, you have to anticipate an extra 30 to 60 minutes of decontamination procedures before you could go home to your family. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember volunteers aren’t full-time [firefighters].
The organization is composed of businessmen, accountants, engineers, lawyers, architects, pilots, doctors, and students. When a volunteer firefighter responds to a call, he has likely left his family at the dinner table, his friends at the movie theater, his shop during business hours, or the relative safety of his own bed to help strangers in need. An extra hour to ensure our own safety is another hour spent away from loved ones, friends and work. After years in active service and after the countless events we’ve missed, I find that we value our off-time more than most.
What do you value most as a Filipino-Chinese volunteer firefighter?
I trust these guys with my life. It didn’t matter if you trained back in 1980 or in 2015. We all spoke the same language, and we were all trained the same way. It takes a level of trustworthiness to work well with a crew under stress. It takes a level of dedication to work so hard for absolutely no monetary compensation whatsoever. It takes a level of compassion to continue to do this work day in and day out after having seen disaster after disaster. It takes a level of discipline to show up every time that alarm goes off. It takes a level of passion to volunteer so much of yourself in service of the Cebuano people.
I have nothing but respect for the level of passion my superiors have shown in keeping the figurative torch alive. I hope to provide the same level of inspiration for future generations someday. At the end of the day, we have the same goal. We work together daily to ensure that the Cebuano people are safe.
Would you recommend the role? What kind of advice would you want to provide for aspiring Chinoy firefighters and frontliners?
Becoming a volunteer firefighter was not easy. Only two out of my batch of six actually made it to the very end. But it is a rewarding, and most of all, humbling experience. I would recommend it to all the young men in our community, especially those of Filipino-Chinese descent. This organization was built through the efforts of outstanding members of the Filipino-Chinese community who are now fathers and grandfathers. It’s our time now to take up the mantle and to give back to the Cebuano people.
Be a part of something more. Volunteer today! If you can’t volunteer with us, then get involved in any way you can. If you ever want to give more of yourself, several groups are actively accepting volunteers, including the Emergency Response Unit Foundation (ERUF), Philippine Red Cross, the Cebu City Fire Volunteer (CCFV), and various other volunteer emergency response units. To whoever is reading this, thank you for your support; it keeps us going. Stay safe!
For more information on the Cebu Filipino-Chinese Volunteers Fire Brigade, check out the CFCVFB Facebook page here!