Pandemonium had already broken out by the time the fire volunteers arrived. Students were screaming and crying as they try to push the main door open. The smell of burning sulfur, smoke, and sweat pervaded the atmosphere. The sight of it all was just too horrendous for words.

This was the Ozone Disco tragedy, considered to be the worst fire in Philippine history. The disaster started well past midnight on March 18, 1996 when sparks started flying inside the booth of the disc jockey, followed by smoke which was thought to be part of the act. When the realization came to the revelers, panic crept in. All hell broke loose. “There was utter chaos when we got there because the doors couldn’t be opened, among other things,” remembers Gerry Chua, the former president of the Association of Philippine Fire Volunteers Brigade, who was one of the first ones on the scene. “We immediately went to work by laying out our hoses and putting out this really huge fire. We also pried the doors open by using a mallet. It was then that we were shocked to find people piled up on top of each other.”

When the fires were subdued in the wee hours of the morning, a hundred and sixty-two (162) people were dead, some found near the foot of the exit, mostly graduating students who were celebrating their success. Most of them didn’t die from the fire, but were either suffocated or killed by the stampede that ensued. The survivors accounted to ninety-five but most of them were scarred for life.

“That was a sad, sad day for the nation,” says Chua. “I felt faint and weak, not because of the work that we have done, but because of this simple error that cost many, many lives.”

If there was any good thing that he took home from that terrible event, it was learning about the significance of fire safety. “I realized back then that whenever we go to hotels, movie theaters, malls, or to any public place, we should always strive to look for the fire exits. And most of all, we should always have that presence of mind.”

Another fire that he could not forget was when the firefighters responded to a frantic call from the Asociacion de Damas de Filipinas orphanage in Paco, Manila in 1998. Several children perished in the disaster.

Text Fire Volunteers and Brigade

The Association of Philippine Fire Volunteers Brigade, a merger of five active fire-fighting groups in the country, started its round on properties and homes on March 1, 1976. The organization has aimed to: (1) help government fire fighters in saving lives and properties during fire disasters and (2) provide the society with free and voluntary service.

Since its inception, it has already expanded its five brigades into 37 affiliated brigades all over the country. This gave way to convenience as more and more people can be served, and saved, wherever they are.

This also paved the way for recognition and awards. A presidential citation was given by then-President Fidel V. Ramos in 1993 commending the association for its undying and fervent service to the nation. Also in August 2000, the Ateneo de Manila University handed the association with a public service award, commending the brave Filipino-Chinese volunteer fire fighters for their strong belief in the importance of volunteerism, their deep commitment to service in a society without expecting anything in return, and their spirit of volunteerism.

But this was not the end of it. It was on its 20th founding anniversary in 1996 when the association established its first foundation called Association of Philippine Volunteer Fire Brigades Foundation, Inc., which aims to provide assistance and care to its volunteers, especially those who have suffered in the line of duty. Their families are also taken care of.

Another milestone added to its magnificent list of achievements was when Textfire Philippines was organized eight years ago. When this started, it was only a couple of people texting here and there. But now, groups were put up to monitor fires, with radio and other equipment, operators and 480 fire trucks are also on stand-by mode. Members, which total to around 3,406, include textfire members who report about fire incidents and textfire volunteers who actually put out the fires. These volunteers are composed of 120 groups all over the Philippines.

From January to April 2011, more than 470 fires big and small (structural, electrical fires and others) in the NCR region, have already been reported to Textfire Philippines.

Livelihood and Development Programs

It’s not only about fighting fires. It’s also about giving livelihood programs and providing jobs to the fire volunteers and their families.

In cooperation with the Filipino-Chinese Bakery Association and Philippine Society of Baking, Textfire Philippines has organized a baking workshop free of charge. Topics discussed include the process on how to make pastillas, emapanada, pulburon, and yema.

“We decided to put up livelihood programs to provide income for the volunteers and their families,” says Chua. “I am excited because this is our first ever livelihood program.”

Other programs include computer literacy teaching and learning with limited slots for fire volunteers and their families. A series of talks on fire safety in schools is also on-going and seminars on fire awareness conducted by Textfire and the Bureau of Fire Protection will also be staged soon.

In the future, the textfire volunteers will also venture into more fire trainings and disaster-preparedness, inlcuding first aid teaching, blood-letting, and free water supply to pedestrians.

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First published in the Fire, Life and Safety section of Volume 1 Issue No.6 of SecurityMatters Magazine – Print Edition