Julio Irizarry Fuentes and Emmanuel Nieves are both Spanish-speaking volunteers at Westville Fire Department.
“Having a firefighter on a call that can speak Spanish helps everyone understand the person and the situation that they are going into,” said Nieves.
He has answered a few calls where the person who needed assistance only spoke Spanish. When Spanish is the only language someone speaks, Nieves and Irizarry Fuentes say this can cause problems on calls when first responders don’t know Spanish. If there is language-barrier, it takes longer to understand what is going on during an emergency, where every second counts.
“We’re living in a country with a variety of different languages from all over the world,” said Irizarry Fuentes. “It would be great to have bilingual volunteers who can communicate with people who speak the same language during an emergency.”
According to the 2020 Census, 13.61% of residents in Westville speak a language other than English. Imagine a person who was in a car accident who cannot speak English and is having one of their worst days.
“When they cannot speak to first responders, they are even more anxious and afraid,” said Irizarry Fuentes.
To make situations like these better, he and Nieves are teaching their fellow Westville volunteers basic words and phrases in Spanish that could be helpful on emergency calls.
Officially sworn in to the department in the fall of 2022, they will graduate with their Firefighter I certification from Camden County Fire Academy in May.
“It’s a tough school, but they’re passionate about teaching you,” said Nieves. “It’s not an easy job and they’re trying to prepare you for the line of work.”
Nieves grew up in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents and learned English when he started going to school.
He discovered that Westville Fire Department was seeking volunteer firefighters from a Facebook ad for the JoinWestvillFire.org campaign. He read more about the department and then filled out an inquiry form to express interest. After visiting the station and talking with other volunteers, he felt like Westville would be a good fit for him.
As a husband and father of two, he also consulted with his wife because he knew volunteering would be a big commitment. Always wanting to help people, Nieves really enjoys the fire service.
“The guys make it fun and going on calls to help people – or even just listen to people and talk with people – is rewarding,” said Nieves.
Similar to Nieves, Irizarry Fuentes’ first language is Spanish; however, he was born and raised in Puerto Rico. While living there, he was always interested in getting a job in the police department or emergency services, but never did. After Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Irizarry Fuentes moved with his wife and four kids to the United States to start a new life.
English was a mandatory school course in Puerto Rico, and Irizarry Fuentes also watched movies in English, so he already knew the language when relocating to the United States.
With his interest in an emergency services career, Irizarry Fuentes found that Westville Fire Department was the closest station to his home. Although Westville is 100% volunteer and does not offer paid positions, Irizarry Fuentes still decided to join the team as a volunteer.
“Responding to calls is exciting,” he said. “What I enjoy the most is the way people get along with each other and the respect between everybody.”
Irizarry Fuentes works at Green Lawn Fertilizer to provide fertilization and weed control services to lawns. Meanwhile, Nieves works at ATLAS Flasher in traffic control.
“My job helps me with firefighting,” said Nieves. “If we’re answering a medical call on the turnpike or highway, I can take care of the traffic.”
To anyone interested in joining Westville Fire Department, Nieves’ advice is to engage and spend time with other firefighters.
“It’s not easy coming in new, knowing nothing,” said Nieves, “The more you engage, the more they will embrace you. When you show up to calls, it shows them that they can count on you.”
Irizarry Fuentes agrees with that sentiment.
“Go to training nights and respond to calls. Make sure the other volunteers see you to build that trust,” he said. “Open your eyes, open your ears and communicate. If you have any questions, ask them; don’t hesitate.”
No prior experience is required to become a volunteer firefighter. Westville Fire Department trains volunteers and provides them with gear.
“I’m having fun and learning a lot,” said Nieves. “It’s a great company to work for, a lot of hands-on experience.”
Westville Fire Department is seeking volunteer firefighters and firefighter/EMTs, ages 18 and older, as well as junior firefighters, ages 14 through 17. To learn more or sign up to volunteer, visit JoinWestvilleFire.org.