RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Bombeiros (firefighters) in the U.S. have a very visible place in the public consciousness, especially since their rescue efforts in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Firefighters hold a position of respect in society, children fantasize about their heroics, and it takes a special kind of courage to willingly do this job.
The most contemporary portrayal of the life and times of a firefighter is the popular FX TV series Rescue Me (surprisingly good). But even sensationalized, it is still a niche of society that few know much about, and I suspect even more so in Brazil, until recently.
In the last several weeks the local news has been ablaze (desclupe) with reports of the bombeiros protesting in Rio de Janeiro, and last weekend some clashes resulted in arrests. Currently firefighters in Rio receive a monthly salary of R$950, and they want that increased to R$2,000, which seems reasonable given the inflation here.
The average salary of a regular firefighter in the U.S. is US$3,449 per month (R$5,437) – US$41,388 annually, a huge discrepancy. Although bombeiros in Brazil are not alone, the minimum wage here is R$545 (US$326), paid thirteen times for an annual income of R$7,085 (US$4,384). The U.S. federal minimum wage, by comparison, is US$7.25 per hour; or US$15,080 annually.
According to some reports, the fire services in Brazil are militarized like the Sapeurs-pompiers of France. Each state has its own Military Firefighters Corps (Corpo de Bombeiros Militar). It seems there is also a “firefighter calendar” though, which can be used in businesses (usually in the Fire Brigade) or participate in public service as a volunteer or contractor, or as a municipal employee.
In most states of Brazil, the Fire Brigade is autonomous. Only in the states of Sao Paulo, Parana, Rio Grande do Sul and Bahia are linked administratively to the Military Police Command and the State Department of Public Safety. In the state of Rio de Janeiro the Fire Brigade is linked to the State Health Department and Civil Defense.
Because some of the bombeiros are militarized, under the Military Penal Code, the penalties for these recent protest crimes are prison terms of up to eight years… serious consequences, if the government actually went forward and prosecuted them. That remains in question though, because after-all, these are the guys who have always protected us.
The history of organized combating of structural fires dates back at least to Ancient Egypt. Many people put out fires back in biblical times, but whether people did it for a living is unknown.
For much of the world today, the job remains a mix of paid, call, and volunteer heroes. In Brazil there are over 5,500 municipalities, and of these, reports indicate fewer than 350 have military firefighters. To become a military firefighter, you need to pay the tender and go through a training course.
I’ve never been in a burning building, or had cause to need the help of a firefighter, thankfully. If and when the time come, I’ll take the well paid and well trained firefighter please.