Interview: International honour and a trip of a life time

Published:  01 August, 2014

Fire and Rescue speaks to Salvatore La Sala, the Team Leader of the International Firefighting Team of the Year from Palermo, which won the coveted Conrad Dietrich Magirus Award. The firefighters from Palermo rescued 15 people from a collapsing building. In May they travelled up to New York to visit the FDNY for a trip of a life time.

Last year you won the first international Conrad Dietrich Magirus Award. How did you come up with the idea to apply for the award? 

We heard about the international competition Conrad Dietrich Magirus Award through the fire brigade of the Palermo province. The Palermo fire brigade itself was informed about the competition by the Emergency Services and Public Defence Department of the Italian Department of the Interior. We were immediately convinced that we could certainly enter the competition but we would never have thought that we would actually win. 

The final decision was made via an online voting on What did you do to motivate the people to vote for you? 

Palermo fire brigade in Via Bagolino was selected as one of the 10 best operations in the world and we asked them to inform their friends and to have them vote for us. We also used social networks where we talked about the operation and asked users to vote for the Palermo fire brigade and those in Italy. 

How was the reaction to your victory at the CDM 2013 in general? 

We were extremely happy and could not believe it really, but one extremely emotional moment was when we were to be in the final, together with all the other fire brigades from different countries. 

Did the people's perception regarding your work change in any way? 

The perception did not change much because the Corpo Nazionale dei Vigili del Fuoco, the Italian association of fire brigades, has always had high esteem with the Italian public. This is the same for our fire brigade. 

The intervention you sent for the award was very dangerous. You rescued several people from a collapsing building during an intervention that you will definitely remember all your life. What were the critical moments at this intervention? 

There were many critical moments in this operation. First of all, we had to convince people to leave their homes because there was no time left. Later, the entire building collapsed. We were surrounded by a huge cloud of dust and building rubble. We were afraid that some Squadra 1A firefighters were stuck under the rubble, and finally we had to get other tenants out of all this. 

Among the best three international applications that were invited to the gala event in Ulm, was a fire brigade from Romania and a team from Austria. Did you discuss the differences and similarities regarding firefighting in these countries? 

In the course of the evening, we learned about the similarities and differences not only regarding the ways of fighting fires, which are basically similar in every country, but also about the organisational differences between the fire brigades in different countries. We particularly learned about the fact that in some countries, such as Germany, this service is predominantly or even totally voluntary, whereas in Italy, fire brigades are national bodies having both a permanent and a voluntary component. 

The interventions that made up the top three were quite different. Have you ever had to fight a fire in a tunnel just as the Austrian firefighters did? And what was the main challenge in that case? 

The Palermo fire brigade, too, had numerous operations in several tunnels in Italy, which were equally difficult. The most critical points in similar situations comprise a limited view due to the smoke, high temperatures and the difficulties relating to getting people out of this chaos of metal. In some cases, there is also the risk of explosions depending on the cars involved.

The Austrian team was a voluntary fire brigade. Is this concept of voluntary fire brigades, which is widespread in Austria and Germany – also common in Italy and how does it work in Italy? 

In Italy, fire brigades predominantly consist of permanent staff. However, there is also a voluntary component to the Italian fire brigade association. Voluntary firefighters are mainly based in areas that are difficult to access and where the number of operations and the risk of fires are not very high. 

As the winners of the CDM were only announced during the Gala event in Ulm, how did it feel to be named the ‘first’ winner of the international award and how did you experience the ceremony? 

We could not wait to attend the ceremony and some of us had already guessed that we might win.The presentation of awards was really emotional; we understood how actors must feel when they win the Oscar. We were aware of the fact that we were taking part in a competition on an international level. We were really proud to win and we knew that this was a recognition, not only for the Squadra 1A, but for all the fire brigades in Italy. 

You and your team won a trip to the FDNY, the fire department of New York where your team went last week. How did you handle the question of who can go to New York and who needs to stay in Palermo? 

In total, 50 firefighters were involved in this operation. After the building had collapsed, other fire brigades had been arriving from all over Sicily and the supervisor of the province, the technical official on duty and the commander of the province were also present. For this reason, the fire brigades mentioned above and the regional director of the fire brigades in Sicily were involved in the operation in addition to the Squadra 1A and two fire brigades which were drawn by lot. 

You were picked up from the airport by a FDNY bus. What were your first impressions of New York? 

The FDNY bus is similar to the one we use in Palermo, which is why we immediately felt like being at home. When we finally arrived in New York City, we realised that our dream had come true. It felt like we were walking through a film set. 

You visited several fire stations in New York. What were the main differences between your work and theirs? 

We have visited several fire stations in New York and noticed that their job is quite similar to ours, including shift times, tasks that must be performed while you are waiting for call outs, and the equipment the FDNY uses is very similar to ours as well. However, there are many differences. With the main difference being the size of their rescue vehicles. They are much larger, however due to the structure of Italian cities with their historic centres and narrow streets, these trucks could never be used in Italy. 

You also visited the famous training center - The Rock - and had the possibility to experience the training of the FDNY up close. What was most impressive? 

The Rock training centre is really interesting. This is the place where all New York fire brigades train for all types of emergencies. We were particularly impressed by two underground rail carriages, which are used to simulate tunnel and subway emergencies. The strategy and the equipment they use to rescue victims who are trapped between an underground wagon and the platform are very impressive. 

How does the training in Italy compare to the training in NY? 

In Italy, training for new firefighters consists of a 6-month training course. During this period, the students take part in different theoretical as well as practical and physical training sessions. After the initial training, students undergo stringent training in in different specialization such as operations rooms, dealing with hazardous substances, rescue techniques for remote terrains, etc. So our training is quite similar to the training in New York in general.

Did you have the possibility to talk with your colleagues from New York regarding your interventions, technical details, etc? 

We did discuss statistical data from operations in 2013. Most of the FDNY calls are medical emergencies. In Italy, fire brigades do not deal with medical calls, and this is the reason those emergencies are not part of our statistics. 

One of the highlights was the trip with the Marine 2 – the world’s most cutting-edge fireboat. What was this like?

This boat mainly differs from other fireboats due to its size. It is much longer than Italian fire boats - which measure under 25 metres. With regards to the firefighting equipment on board, it is similar to ours, but it is in proportion to the size of the boat. 

What is your favorite personal experience from this trip? What was the most impressing experience? 

The nicest experience from a professional point of view was to see how our FDNY colleagues work and how they are trained. The most impressive and emotional experience was certainly the visit to the World Trade Center Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It gave us the shivers to be so close to a place of tragedy. 

What tactical and operational strategies, taught by the FDNY during your visit, will you take back and relay as training for your department? 

The operational techniques and strategies as well as the team spirit are all similar to ours. However, we were really impressed by the strong patriotism, which distinguishes the FDNY. They have the national flag on their rescue vehicles and since September 11 2001, this sense of patriotism has become even stronger. 

Why do you think an award such as the International Firefighting Team of the year is important? What can firefighters all over the world learn from each other? 

The Conrad Dietrich Magirus Award is a very important award because it honours the fire brigades' professionalism and provides recognition the fire services daily work. In addition, it brings fire brigades together on an international level and broadens one's professional horizon. 

What would your advice be for other firefighting teams looking to enter the award? 

It is particularly important to describe the emotions during the most critical moments of the operation.  

If you could convey one key learning/training message to other brigades all over the world, which you took away from the incident, what would this be? 

It is important to not underestimate any operation you undertake, because even those incidents that may seem easy can turn into really difficult ones within seconds.  

 Your efforts in saving all these people were very heroic, but how do you make sure as a firefighting team/IC that heroism doesn’t turn into danger for your crew? 

During the operation, you certainly do not think that you could do something heroic because you are completely concentrated on what must be done at the moment. In many cases, you must act really fast. It is obvious that there are some risks related to the job as a firefighter but the risk is reduced to a minimum thanks to continuous vocational and practical training sessions as well as the experience from many operations.   

Do you want to win a trip to New York and become International Firefighting Team of the Year 2014. Enter the Conrad Dietrich Magirus Award. Send in the story of your best call out or incident. Enter here: The last date you can send in your submission is August 31.

A team of international firefighting experts (including the editor of Fire and Rescue) will judge your submission

  • Operation Florian

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