MARCH is not the month with the most number of fires in the country. The bathroom is not the best place to run to when you’re caught inside a building on fire. And firefighting is a skill that combines science, experience and common sense – for a judgment call that seeks only one objective: control the blaze, minimize damage to life and property, and rescue the affected people.
These are just some of the lessons that members of the Ling Nam Athletic Federation Volunteer Fire and Rescue Brigade get to learn from those moments when they risk life and limb battling flames or rescuing people injured in a blaze, a disaster or an accident. And often the only reward they ever get for their effort.
“You’d know exactly what to do in an emergency – for me that’s the most important thing,” says Richard Ng, one of two senior firefighters of the brigade. “Nasunugan ako [I lost everything in a fire] many years ago,” he adds by way of explanation. “A year later, I joined a firefighting brigade.”
A volunteer for the past 37 years, but formerly with another brigade, Ng and a childhood friend, Rolando Villamora, formed the first team of firefighters of the Ling Nam Brigade, which was organized in 2002 by William Soon, the brigade’s fire marshall. Villamora, for his part, has found in the organization a second family, and is stumped for answer to the question, what does he get out of it? “It’s something you know you have to do – when you know you can help.”
And if Ng and Villamora and other volunteer firefighters of the Ling Nam Brigade move with such grace, agility and precision at the scene of the action, it is because they are first instructors and students of a martial arts school, under Soon, who is their master.
The name, the history and the continued existence of the volunteer brigade, located on Fugoso Street in Sta. Cruz, Manila, are intricately linked to this martial arts school, which is housed in the same compound. On afternoons when the Chinese and Filipino students come for their martial arts lessons, one or two fire trucks are driven out and parked on the curb outside.
The Philippine Ling Nam Athletic Federation composed of several martial arts schools is the mother organization, Soon says, founded to study and promote these traditional physical arts from the Guangdong region of China.
“My interest and advocacy has really been to promote Chinese martial arts to the mainstream society of the Philippines,” Soon explains. This is primarily focused on wushu and the cultural tradition of the Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance.
“Ling Nam” is a term more commonly associated with a noodle house, Soon accedes and chuckles at the initial confusion, but it also refers to a “mountain in the south” of Guangdong, where the Lion and Dragon Dances trace their origin. Hence, it was the name they chose for the federation.
The Lion Dance and Dragon Dance are a serious art form and learning the rudiments of the art and the steps of the dances require discipline and perseverance, as any martial arts master and student knows.
Although there are no lions in China, Soon explains, the story goes that farmers whose crops were constantly attacked by pests had created a colorful huge-headed creature (resembling a cat or a lion) to scare them off. When this scheme succeeded and they had a bountiful harvest, they equated the lion dance with a way to ward off evil and bring in good luck and blessings.
Master Soon would have been happy enough forming the next generation of students and content in his world of martial arts, but as fate would have it, he also had a first-hand experience with fire. “The factory of my father-in-law was razed to the ground, and my wife was almost trapped inside,” he recalls. “The place was filled with fabrics that were highly combustible. It was a good thing it happened in the morning, so the people were able to escape from the burning factory. But it was then that I saw how crucial the service rendered by volunteer firefighters is. Gustong gusto ko yung ginawa nila [I really appreciated what they did].”
Realizing that the ideals, values and principles of the martial arts that he sought to imbibe in his students jibed with the spirit of voluntarism, especially for fire and rescue, Soon called on his senior instructors, Ng and Villamora, to help organize a volunteer fire and rescue brigade, with their students as the first firefighters.
“We started out with one pumper, one fire engine and one ambulance,” recalls Ng. Today, the brigade, with about 20 to 30 volunteers, is equipped with eight modern fire trucks, an advanced cardiac life support ambulance and a mobile command post.
Vehicles and equipment have come through donations, Soon says. “That’s easy. What’s difficult is the maintenance of these equipment – that’s expensive.”
Now this is where the Lion Dance performances of the organization come in handy, he adds. The income of the martial arts school, primarily from the Lion Dance performances, goes a long way in providing for the expenses of the fire brigade, including the maintenance of its vehicles.
“We are volunteers and we do not get paid. But we spend a lot for the upkeep of the machines, gasoline and utilities,” Ng says. “Also for the training of the volunteers.”
The brigade is recognized by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and its members are invited to undergo the same training given to government firefighters. They also get training in first aid and rescue operations from the Red Cross and other such organizations involved in disaster response activities.
“Firefighting has evolved from simply putting out fires to rescue, disaster response and even medical missions,” Ng says. “Sure, in an emergency anybody is welcome to help, but if you are part of a volunteer brigade, you have to know what to do. That’s why we have to have formal training.”
Experience on the job also goes a long way. “How we act depends on our assessment of the situation and that happens even before we reach the scene,” says Villamora, who has logged 35 years in volunteer firefighting.
Among the general factors they consider when an alarm is sounded are:
Situation: What time of the year is it? (e.g. summer: possibly electrical; typhoon/brownout: possible candle flame)
Neighborhood: (e.g. Tondo: light materials, congested streets; Makati/subdivision: detached houses, wide streets)
Type of fire: wood, electrical, chemical
Wind direction: important for knowing where to position yourself and where to train the water flow
Time of fire and location: this is important for determining routes in getting to the scene
“Along the way, we already discuss how to approach the situation, but when we get there, we consult with the ground commander,” Villamora continues, “Who is of course, the government.” Although there are reportedly eight volunteer firetrucks for every one government fire truck, and about the same ratio for personnel, the volunteers defer to, and coordinate with, the government forces.
“We never forget that we are volunteers,” says Soon, “we are there to help. Even if we are sometimes first on the scene, our mission is to help the community, but only as volunteers. That is what I always tell our men. We have just one goal: to put out the fire and to rescue people.”
When the job is done, they don’t stick around waiting for thanks. “It’s enough that we’ve been of help. We don’t mind not being noticed. It would hurt more if we weren’t able to do anything,” he says in the vernacular.
There’s a way to get over that sin of omission though: Try to make up for it the next time they’re needed.
And incidentally, for anyone who cares to know: April is the month with the most fires in the country. Don’t rush to the bathroom: in that cramped space, you won’t have enough oxygen and the smoke inhalation would kill you long before the fire would. About 90 percent of all fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation.
As for firefighters – government or volunteer – trust them to know and do their job, and try not to get in their way. •