Hazleton firefighters find Dominican colleagues in sad shape

March 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

Leaving behind millions of dollars worth of equipment at their fire station, two Hazleton firefighters found themselves surrounded by archaic apparatus and a fire department in dire need.

Hazleton Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Jones and Jose Melo, a Hazleton volunteer firefighter, were fulfilling a request by the mayor of a Dominican Republic city and its struggling fire department.

San Jose de Ocoa Mayor Aneudy Ortiz Sajiun paid for both men’s travel expenses hoping they could bring safety to his city in the Caribbean.

Sanjiun knows Melo’s family and is mayor of the city Melo called home until he was 16 years old and moved to the United States for a better life.

Melo and Jones boarded a three-and-a-half-hour flight and endured a two-hour car ride to reach out to Ocoa, where they stayed from Jan. 18 to 24. They found Ocoa’s fire department manned with people willing to protect but truly unable to serve.

Since Melo and Jones returned home, they have vowed to support Ocoa by collecting used, yet serviceable fire-fighting equipment in America and then ship it out to their friends in Ocoa.


The weather was 90 degrees and humid in the dead of winter, a drastic change from the freezing temperatures and snow that fell back home in northeastern Pennsylvania. But it was no vacation. In fact, Ocoa, which is farther inland and away from the vacation resort towns in the country, is starved from the money that flows into its vacation provinces, Melo said. Its fire department is an example of the lack of finances towns outside of the resorts have to manage what Americans consider normal community services.

“The president forgot Ocoa,” Melo said.

In Ocoa, homes are made of concrete and typically have gas-powered stoves. The tanks are stored inside homes. Jones said storing gas tanks inside is unheard of in the United States because it presents a major safety hazard and the potential for an explosion and fires. According to Melo, gas-fired explosions and fires do occur in Ocoa often.

The town is 22 square miles made up of rural areas and more densely populated spaces, with about 32,000 people – about 10,000 more people than in Hazleton, according to the 2000 census. At San Jose de Ocoa, a six-man crew mans the station day and night. They have humble surroundings – two rustic bunk beds and a pit toilet. There is no 911 dispatch system, so city-wide fire alarms are sounded to alert firefighters of an emergency, Jones said. The system pre-dates the emergency communication firefighters use in the United States now. City-wide fire alarms, Jones said, were used in the states up until the early 1980s.

Ocoa’s department has one engine that’s disabled. It was in an accident and has a smashed windshield and motor. Jones said the steering wheel for the vehicle is pushed into the front seats, making it impossible to drive. The second vehicle is a pumper truck used to pump water from a filling source. Typically, the water is then trucked to a fire to fight flames when there are no hydrants. But the pump doesn’t work. Melo and Jones tried to help the men with some repairs to make responding to calls a little easier.

“Then we asked them for a screw driver but they didn’t even have that,” Jones said.

But Jones said the pumper truck, made in China, is so old that replacement parts are no longer available for it. Jones said he contacted a distributor, KME in Nesquehoning, to see if they had something that would work. The pumper can pump water at 60 gallons per hour, compared to Hazleton’s pumper truck, which handles 1,500 gallons per minute.

There is space on the department’s truck for tools but there is nothing inside it. There are no axes or chain saws, not even common household tools. Most buildings in the town have metal bars on windows, leaving firefighters unable to get inside a burning building unless the door is unlocked or someone has a key.

“Buildings just burn down because they don’t have the equipment,” Jones said.

The department has one self-contained breathing apparatus, which administers oxygen to firefighters battling a fire inside a building. Only one person in the department is trained to use it and if the tank is used up, they have to drive two hours to another town to have it filled. Their turnout gear, which protects firefighters from flames, is “as thin as a raincoat,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t wear it inside a burning building.”

They also have no boots, helmets or gloves to protect them from flames.

Packing gear

Back home, Jones and Melo continue to work with the Hazleton Fire Department, but they remain vigilant in the pursuit to bring safety to Ocoa by re-using equipment that isn’t satisfactory due to American federal regulations but still usable.

Both men are collecting fire-fighting equipment and gear of any kind that is in serviceable condition. He plans to store the equipment in Hazleton and then ship it out. Jones said he already made arrangements with someone to have the donations packed up and shipped.

Donations can be arranged by contacting Melo at 570-972-7254 or Jones at hfd079@ptd.net.



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