San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A fiery little museum

From the print edition

The firefighters of Atenas in the northwestern province of Alajuela spend much of their time sitting around, talking and keeping the equipment in order. But when an emergency call comes in, they must hit the siren to summon the volunteers, suit up and go.

It may be a brush fire, a house fire, a traffic accident, an attack of Africanized bees, a rope rescue in a ravine or river or just a wild animal in somebody’s house. “When people need help they call the bomberos,” said Sub-Lieutenant Rafa Rodríguez, chief of the fire station in Atenas.

There’s also something much more unusual about the fire department in Atenas: It keeps  a small museum. The museum is so small it fits in a cabinet, but it is none-the-less meaningful to the firefighters and the public as well. 

Comprised of fire department memorabilia from around the world, the museum was started about 50 years ago, when volunteer firefighter Irving Jenkins brought back souvenirs from fire departments on his travels to other countries. This developed into an exchange among fire departments. 

“We are like an hermandad, a brotherhood. There is a rapport among us,” said Diego León, a firefighter who had recently returned from a week fighting a forest fire in the Southern Zone.

Peek into the cabinet, and you will find helmets dating back 50 years, the earliest made of leather and resembling mushrooms. Later helmets, including some from Spain, look more like army headgear. The cabinet also contains a decades-old dress uniform and hat, once worn for ceremonies and parades. There are toy fire trucks donated by children who wanted to give the firefighters something for their collection, and a small version of a water hydrant that served as a prize from a competition among fire departments. There are odd things, too, like the small figurine of a fireman aiming a hose at a fire, all made of recycled material.

The back wall of the cabinet is covered with colorful patches from Seattle, Eugene, Baltimore, Burbank, Passaic County, Montreal, Stuttgart and many more cities, each carrying its own identifying design. Some were presented by visiting firefighters and some were collected through visits and contacts with fire departments abroad. Key chains, badges and belt buckles abound, from departments as far flung as Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Spain, England, Germany, Austria, Canada, and the United States.

Two special items are meaningful to firefighters around the world as well as those in Atenas. A black T-shirt with white lettering reads, “All gave some. Some gave all. Sept. 11, 2001, New York Fire Department.” There is also a lapel pin, about 4 centimeters in diameter, depicting firefighters and the U.S. flag, from the New York Fire Department.

“A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center we had a memorial mass at the church here for the firefighters who died,” chief Rodríguez said. “A foreigner at the mass told us that he had a relative in the New York Fire Department and he was especially moved by the gesture of the firefighters here. He told his relative in New York, who sent the pin and T-shirt,” which are kept, like new, in the museum cabinet.

The fire department – located on the same block as the bus station and the central market in downtown Atenas – welcomes visitors whenever the doors are open and they are not responding to an emergency. Head on over, and ask to see their museo.

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