Firefighters Nunez and Gramaglia battle fire prop. - Photo by Anton Riecher

Firefighters Nunez and Gramaglia battle fire prop.

Photo by Anton Riecher

Argentine emergency responders training in the United States expect to encounter language problems. What surprises Pablo Martin Fritz Oliver, fire chief at Shell’s 8,000-barrels-a-day refinery in Buenos Aires, is how easily firefighters overcome those stumbling blocks.

“It’s not really anything debilitating,” the bilingual Oliver said. ”Firefighters all speak the same language, really. The objectives are the same, no matter what language you’re speaking.”

Oliver and two other responders from the Buenos Aires ERT attended the Shell corporate fire school at Brayton Fire Training Field in April. The school is held three times a year in Texas to accommodate Shell emergency responders worldwide.

Oliver’s ERT is essentially a volunteer organization supplemented by five fulltime professional firefighters, including himself. Per shift, the ERT typically has about 25 volunteer responders on site to draw from in an emergency.

Parked at the refinery’s single fire station is an inventory of rolling stock that includes two fire engines, a rescue truck, hazmat truck, a truck dedicated to high angle and confined space rescue and an ambulance.

However, even in an emergency, the typical mode of transportation around the small refinery is by bicycle.

“When the siren sounds you put on your bunker gear, jump on the nearest bike and go to the event,” Oliver said.

The ERT averages about 20 emergency calls a year, most of them routine. But last June as the refinery was shutting down for a maintenance turnaround the ERT responded to a major fire in a storage tank.

“When you have a big fire, you really can’t hear anything,” said Oliver. “So, you use a lot of hand signals. It’s always worked out perfectly so far.”

Fire Chief Pablo Martin Fritz Oliver acts as instructor. - Photo by Anton Riecher

Fire Chief Pablo Martin Fritz Oliver acts as instructor.

Photo by Anton Riecher

Assistance from outside the refinery in an emergency is unlikely, he said. Buenos Aires, a city of 2.89 million population, still relies on a largely volunteer municipal fire department enforced by police officers who train as firefighters.

Working as a police officer/firefighter for 16 years is how Oliver’s career as an emergency responder began. He joined Shell 10 years ago, choosing to focus solely on firefighting and emergency rescue.

His first visit to Brayton for fire training was nearly 20 years ago, he said. For the last decade he has served as an instructor during Brayton’s Escuela de Capacitacion para Bomberos Hispanos or Spanish fire school every summer.

Joining Oliver on the 10-hour flight from Buenos Aires for the Shell school were shift fire chiefs Martine Núñez  and Leonardo Gramaglia. Elio Mosqueda, an HSC shift field representative with Chevron in Deer Park, NY, served as their interpreter.

Together Núñez and Gramaglia represent 56 years of continuing experience as municipal firefighters. Núñez, a 12-year Shell employee, and Gramaglia, a 10-year Shell employee, visit Brayton at least once every two years to attend the Shell school or the Spanish fire school.

“These guys really enjoy it,” Mosqueda said. “They are full of energy and extremely knowledgeable about what they do for a living. The brotherhood is just unbelievable. They have not met a stranger here yet.”

Still, visiting Brayton brings the differences between North and South America into sharp focus too. At Chevron Buenos Aires, the ERT operates its own ambulance but has no EMTs or paramedics on the roster, Oliver said.

“It is not permitted,” he said. “There is no certification for these job titles. To treat a patient you must be a doctor or a nurse, period.”