Ryan Bombard keeps an eye on his cell phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s not awaiting notifications from his friends on social media. He’s looking for alerts that tell him where emergencies are happening in Nosara, events like fires, floods, or even snakes and crocodiles in unwanted places.
The cell phone is practically the center of operations for Nosara’s firefighters, an organization made up of volunteers that was co-founded by a former US soldier almost 10 years ago with the intention of responding to an unfulfilled need. Since the coastal district is separated from the center of Nicoya by 60 kilometers (37 miles) of gravel road full of potholes, the official firefighters, those from Nicoya, responded to emergencies when it was already too late.
If we relied on the Costa Rica Fire Department, they’d only be here in time to see the ashes from the fire,” says Marco Ávila, president of the Development Association (ADIN).
Nicoya’s firefighters admit that responding to the needs of the entire canton is difficult and that Nosarans are a huge support during those times.
“It’s very valuable the help they have given us, because when we arrived to attend a fire, something small, they have already extinguish the fire,“says fire chief of Nicoya, Javier Guerrero.
It hasn’t been easy for the team. They all have full time jobs and don’t receive any pay for their time as volunteers -with the exception of Bombard- and they survive on donations from the community.
But the lack of resources isn’t their only limitation. Since they don’t receive financing from Costa Rica’s Fire Department, which is the state institution in charge of fighting fires around the country, they don’t receive notifications about emergency phone calls to 9-1-1. As they seek to be integrated into the alert system, they’ve come up with a remedy in the meantime: cell phones.
Cell Phone at Hand 24/7
On one August morning in Nosara, Bombard tells us that they have already responded to 268 incidents in the district this year. In eight months, they’ve already responded to more than double the number of emergencies in all of last year when they attended to 113, he says while he reads notifications on his cell phone. On the device, he keeps a meticulous list detailing every kind of emergency, when and where it happened and a description of the events. The most frequent is the presence of snakes.
Number of incidents attended until August, 2018
The firefighter attributes the increase number of calls to the growing population of the district and the fact that people are getting to know them more.
We have calls everyday. One small one, one big one, but everyday,” says Bombard, who is the only one dedicated 24/7 to being a firefighter in this community of 5,000 people. The rest only show up when the emergency merits.
In order to contact them about an emergency, residents can call the cell phone number that appears on signs for Nosara Firefighters that have been put up around town. Nonetheless, Bombard says that there are still people who don’t know about them and end up calling 9-1-1.
Bombard is constantly reviewing the Costa Rica Fire Department cell phone application, where all firefighting emergencies are reported, so he doesn’t miss an emergency and so victims don’t have to wait an hour-and-a-half for help to arrive from Nicoya.
When he and his team find out about an incident, they cover it themselves and then let Nicoya know, which saves resources for the official firefighters.
If the emergency merits, they also coordinate with other organizations via Whatsapp groups. The group includes members of the police, red cross, detectives, firefighters and directors of each hospital in the area. All of Nosara’s volunteer firefighters communicate with each other in a separate, similar group
“If there is a 16-year-old patient with a rattlesnake bite on her right foot – Bombard says as an example – I send for transportation and send her information to the Nicoya hospital so that when she arrives they have all the information they need about the person and the incident, and that way they have medicine ready,” he says. “It’s very, very effective.”
Surviving on Donations
In their storage room in Guiones water association, Nosara’s firefighters store a dozen suits donated by foreigners. They have U.S., Swiss, Costa Rican and Canadian flags on the arms.
The entire community contributes to help these volunteers. They hold an annual food festival called the Taste of Nosara and local businesses and residents come together to collect funds for the firefighters and for the security committee.
Seven local companies also contribute a percentage of their service tax to the volunteer firefighters every month.
The fire truck was donated by an American couple in 2015. The firefighters only had to pay ¢4 million ($7,080) in taxes and transportation costs in order to import it to the country.
And thanks to donations they’ve been able to get everything they have: a rescue vehicle, a truck for forest fires, hoses, suits, helmets, boots and water rescue gear.
“For me, the crisis is having less than $4,000 in our bank account,” Bombard says. “But I have a rule of $6,000 minimum, because if a firefighter gets hurt and needs a helicopter to San Jose, we have the money on hand to pay (the expenses for the accident),” Bombard says.
Number of incidents attended in 2017
A New Home
This year the Nosara firefighters officially formed an association. They used to be included under the legal framework of the security commission.
With the change, the ADIN donated a plot of land to the volunteer firefighters where they can build a station and the volunteers hope to get the money for construction from the municipal government and for equipment from the Costa Rica Fire Department.
The ideal scenario would be for them to pay someone else to work 24/7 and pay each volunteer firefighter for the hours that they work.
These are people who have good hearts and want to work for the people,” says Ryan, describing his team.
When our conversation ends, Bombard picks up his sunglasses and walks to the vehicle equipped with gear for rescuing and capturing animals. “This is like my house,” he tells us. The house where he spends 24 hours a day responding to emergencies in Nosara.