In September, Hurricane Fiona devastated portions of the Caribbean. Puerto Rico lay in its path, but the island lacked many of the resources to fully protect residents. With water swirling, the Puerto Rico Volunteer Fire Department and their swift water rescue craft set out to save lives. One boat against a hurricane.
Eulando Piñero, GESA Advisory Council Member and Fire Chief of Puerto Rico’s Volunteer Fire Department, was there that night, leading the rescue efforts. He shared his story with us…
A heartbreaking ordeal
When it reached Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona was only a Level 1, but it brought immense rain – causing landslides, flash floods and swift water emergencies. In the end, Eulando believes the island experienced more danger than it did during a high-wind hurricane back in 2017.
‘It was night. We were the only team on the island with the appropriate boat, so every swift water related call was directed to us. The phone kept ringing. It was a heartbreaking ordeal because we had to make a waiting list of who to save first.
‘My team moved from city to city, conducting water rescues in the pitch black, hoping we wouldn’t be too late to reach the next person,’ Piñero shared. ‘Thankfully, we saved everyone who called – seven lives. But we needed more teams, and more boats to help civilians trapped in dark, dangerous water.’
The night was also personally difficult for Piñero as both his brother, Jose Emilio Piñero, and 22-year-old son, Eulando Gabriel Piñero, participated in the rescue efforts. Speaking of his son: ‘I put him on a boat in hazardous conditions, and as I watched him disappear into the night with his team, I didn’t know if he would come back.’
Need to prepare for larger emergencies
Fiona was not the first hurricane to hit the island and won’t be the last. Still, there was only ONE boat available to address swift water rescues. Why? The answer lies in focus – and in an informal division of labour between volunteers and state departments that may seem logical but in the end leaves too many Puerto Ricans at risk.
‘The state fire department is focused on fires and car accidents – things that occur daily,’ explained Piñero. ‘So the government invests in equipment and training that will be used again and again and again. And as a result, the state fire department is excellent at handling those situations.’
By contrast, Piñero’s volunteer department is better suited to respond in unique emergencies. ‘We have the right dry suits, personal flotation devices, helmets, and, of course, a boat. We also train to tackle distinctive water disasters. We know we are making a difference, which has led young people to volunteer in greater numbers. And we are grateful for this volunteer spirit and dedication to the community.’
However, though it may appear to be an efficient division of labour, the result is risk during a crisis. Volunteers alone can’t respond at scale. Piñero’s brave volunteers were lucky this time – all the calls were answered. But in the coming hurricane season, one boat against the storm may not be enough.
Building the island’s resiliency is an opportunity for new business
Puerto Rico’s volunteer spirit and the skill of its firefighters (full time and volunteer) is the core. But the future of Emergency Services could be even brighter if leaders like Piñero continue to advocate for their needs. And with this advocacy comes opportunity for new budget and new business.
Volunteers made a lasting impression that night. Piñero noted: ‘The mayor [of one of the cities] asked us where we got our equipment because she wants her city to be ready for the next disaster. The lack of preparedness for Hurricane Fiona was eye-opening for some. I am hopeful that it will drive government to invest in the appropriate equipment.’
And there is room for sales to grow within the volunteer department as well. During Hurricane Fiona, several rescue workers asked Piñero about his boots: ‘They loved my boots. I told them that I trusted the brand and gave them some info on how to find the boots for themselves. Personal recommendations like that really drive purchases on teams like ours.’
The Global South is full of emerging markets like that of Puerto Rico, and it’s time for Emergency Services manufacturers to seize the opportunity. ‘Puerto Rico is too often overlooked as a market for manufacturers,’ says Piñero. ‘We want to be able to respond to each person in need when called with enough quality equipment. We can do better than one boat against a hurricane!’
For more information, go to www.gesaction.org
GESA (Global Emergency Services Action)
GESA is an international non-profit founded in 2020 by leading companies in the Emergency Services sector. GESA is a coalition of companies, consultants and practitioners working together to change the future of the global Emergency Services marketplace. We are currently developing our flagship platform – the GESA Equipment Exchange – a web-based tool that will connect Global South departments with manufacturers, consultants, trainers and suppliers to tie donations to a sustainable, longer-term pipeline of sales and service. For information, membership inquiries and more, please contact email@example.com