A desire to aid his birth country led a Linwood firefighter on a 5,000-km trek across the continent to deliver some much-needed emergency rescue equipment to his counterparts in Guatemala.
Santiago (James) Gingerich is a volunteer firefighter with the Township of Wellesley, serving as district chief of the Linwood station. Guatemalan born, Gingerich is a Canadian citizen who’s made Linwood his home but hasn’t forgotten his roots. Made aware of the need for fire trucks and related equipment back in Guatemala, he decided to help out.
With that in mind, he loaded up a retired rescue truck with the kind of firefighting gear common here, but not abundant in the Central American country. That included the likes of portable pumps, breathing rigs and extrication equipment.
The idea of aiding another fire department came to fruition after a visit to the central department of San Benito in Guatemala. Upon his visit he found out the departments are run a bit differently than the volunteer one he has been a part of in Linwood.
Gingerich explained there is no full time paid firefighters, but rather everyone is a volunteer. In order to volunteer they must put in a year’s training before joining. Volunteers work 24-hour shifts, on top of their regular jobs outside of the department. Rather than carrying a pager as volunteers do here, they are required to be at the station for their full volunteer shift.
“The other thing is that because they are volunteer they don’t have government funding, so any equipmentthat they have has to be bought,” he explained, noting that that is a cause for lack of equipment. “So they will do a lot of fundraising. They will be doing what we have here called ‘fill the boot’ – they will be out on the streets at intersections with their boot or their box just looking for donations.That’s how they support themselves.”
Different fundraising efforts is how they provide all equipment, including trucks, he explained, “So a lot of their trucks do come from within the States or Canada.”
The truck and equipment donation wasn’t his first mission to aid Guatemala, however.
“I am originally from there but I didn’t really have much to do with the fire department down there because I had never really thought of that as an option in helping them out,” he said, noting this was about two years prior when he had first thought to check out the area while on a family vacation. “That is kind of where it started, on that trip. I focused quite a bit on visiting different fire departments, but I focused mainly on the one closest to where my wife’s family is from, in northern Guatemala.
He decided to raise awareness of the area in need of help to Firefighters Without Borders. From there Gingerich spearheaded a mission to visit the district department in San Benito. Along with four other firefighters from the Township of Wellesley, one from Sudbury and another from Toronto, he spent six days teaching important rescue training and procedures as well as sending down a shipping crate of various donated equipment.
After returning from that trip, he was gifted a rescue vehicle from the City of Stratford Fire Department.
“It was an ‘87 GM rescue truck, it would be the style of an ambulance – similar to the Elmira rescue trucks. It was gas instead of diesel, and it was automatic, but it was that style,” he said noting the bright yellow colour. “It would be just your two people in the cab and then everything else was in the back, so it was what they would call a heavy duty rescue truck.”
As well, local departments and departments in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick saw the work he had done and wanted to help donate to his Guatemala efforts.
“They sent the equipment to me here in Ontario and the local departments also sent me equipment, and I had more than enough to fill the rescue,” he said.
Although not knowing where to start, he devotedly filled up the truck and began working on different ways to fundraise enough money to drive the truck down there.
“That would be the most secure way of getting it to where I wanted it to go,” he explained of his decision to make the drive, although it would have been cheaper to ship it. “In the long run, to be able to also fulfill the promise I had made of making sure it got there I just felt that the best way would be to just drive it there.”
So fast forward to this past October, and Gingerich headed out to cross through Canada, the United States and Mexico before finally reaching Guatemala, accompanied by a mere acquaintance.
“I didn’t really get to know him before the trip, but one good way of learning to know somebody is do a trip with them,” he joked.
The trip was expected to take them five days, however truck trouble in the States, sequential border delays in Mexico, and a bit of trouble at the Guatemalan border extender their trek to 10 full days.
After all of that, he did get a grand welcome from the group.
“Once we got there, the rest of the fire department met us at the edge of town and we ended up going through town with lights and sirens – they were all excited,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that but, yeah, they were really excited, more so for the equipment rather than the truck itself.”
All said and done, he was able to bring enough equipment for 80 firefighters.
“Just things that they don’t have; they were very happy with everything that they got.”
Although this endeavour was very rewarding, he doesn’t have anything else in the works just yet.
“I was more than thankful that I got there safe and sound and that they got what they were looking for,” he said. “But it’ll be a while before I try it again.”