“The guy you need to talk to”: Louis Chaboya and the binational agreement

Louis Chaboya, special projects and emergency manager at Tubac Fire Department in Santa Cruz County, seems to know everyone working in emergency services near the border. Ricardo “Bojo” Bojorquez, a firefighter affiliated with the departments in ambos Nogales, described Chaboya as the one person to speak with about cooperation between the departments. Chaboya knows everyone and worked on writing the bi-national agreement which allows the firefighters in ambos Nogales to work together, Bojorquez explained.

An animated speaker, Chaboya joked about his job, “I tell ‘em (his correspondents in Mexico), you guys need to do what Las Vegas preaches: What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, right? And they start laughing because we’re downhill of Nogales, Sonora so what happens in Nogales Sonora affects Santa Cruz County.”

“My job as the emergency manager is to take care of the residents of our community,” he explained. He has long realized the U.S.-Mexico border affected communities on both sides of the border. This led to his work in developing the fire departments’ bi-national plans for the sister cities along the border.

In 2000, they began signing mutual aid agreements between the fire departments in each sister-city community. A mutual aid agreement already existed between the fire departments in Santa Cruz County; “if Rio Rico needs help, Tubac will go help ‘em. No questions asked.” Chaboya wanted to apply this concept to a bi-national level.

Louis Chaboya, left, and Oscar, from Proteccíon Civil Estatal, of Hermosillo, Mexico.

The idea behind the bi-national agreements was that the emergency response in each area needed “to be able to respond and help each other out,” Chaboya said. The aid would go both ways, with Mexico coming to help the U.S. and the U.S. responding to crises along the Mexican border. It seemed natural that the departments would come to one another’s aid.

Bojorquez described how the departments have always felt a connection. Since its foundation in November 1917, the department in Nogales, Sonora has worked closely with the U.S. department. Sometimes equipment was borrowed and sometimes firefighters crossed the border.

“It was families that lived in Nogales, Ariz. that had families that lived in Nogales, Sonora and vice versa so the town has always evolved that way, like families with families…back then U.S. Customs didn’t make a big deal over crossing the line,” Bojorquez said.

Originally, the plan only dealt with hazardous materials and involved the help of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because the Santa Cruz River runs north, from Mexico into the United States, a chemical spill or flooding in Mexico will spill over into the U.S., explained Ken L’Arriva, a firefighter working at Station One in Nogales, Ariz. This presents a serious potential for hazardous materials problems. “Whatever we can do in Mexico helps us down here,” said Chaboya.

When work began on the hazardous materials bi-national plan, Chaboya quickly realized they needed to expand their focus to include other hazards, such as fire.

The EPA fought him on the change, but Chaboya decided to go along with his idea. As he explained, the most valuable resource for the cities to share was people. Nogales, Sonora had a much larger population than Nogales, Ariz. and the Mexican bomberos could be called upon to help the smaller departments in the U.S. when fires got out of control or were growing too quickly.

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“So the EPA says, ‘hmm…you know what, Louie? We like your plan. Let’s do that all along the border,’” Chaboya smiled. “So now it is all hazards along that border.”

Chaboya stressed that the bi-national plans are truly beneficial to both sides of the border. The U.S. has offered training to Mexican departments many times. One example was a maquiladora training program, in which they taught a three day first responder operational course. This was a popular success and other regions wanted to have the same training. Chaboya was able to procure more funding and a training group traveled down to Hermosillo. They planned a three day session for about 40 participants; however they were thrilled when 72 people came to learn.

Aside from training, the U.S. has provided equipment for Mexican departments. In November of 2012, hazardous material suits, monitors, and thermal imaging cameras were donated to Nogales, Sonora. There was a formal ceremony and right after the ceremony, when the dignitaries had started to drive away, the department got a call about a fire in one of the tunnels near the border.

Chaboya described how the Nogales, Sonora department put on their “brand new equipment” and went out to answer the call. “They were able to go into the tunnel safely. They were able to monitor…Thank god,” said Chaboya with pride. The fire was just some burning garbage, “but we don’t know that, ok?” It could have been anything. One of Chaboya’s co-workers joked that his nickname was the “Wedding Planner” because the timing of the events and the arrival of the equipment all worked so perfectly.

After explaining many training successes, Chaboya paused…“So, it’s really for the benefit of Mexico?” He answered his own question by explaining how training is usually done with the departments working together, each side teaching the other. In addition, the bomberos have come to the aid of the U.S. in fighting fires.

“Is it a one-way street? Absolutely not!” Chaboya exclaimed.

In April 2011, a fire began in Nogales, Ariz. As it quickly spread from a single home to burning four homes, the department called Nogales, Sonora for aid. “Like that (snapped his fingers)! 30 firemen, four apparatus come across and as far as I’m concerned, had it not been for Mexico…it would have been a lot more houses burned,” Chaboya said. The Mexican fire department has also responded to wild land fires by sending bomberos across the border.

Unfortunately, the U.S. firefighters are no longer allowed to work across the border because their access has changed over the last year. This is due to liability and insurance issues for the men working internationally. Chaboya is hopeful the situation will change.

“We’re working to rectify it…It’s, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a little speed bump. We’re gonna fix it, somehow. We’re working on it,” he said.

Although they cannot cross the border, the U.S. firefighters can still come to aid of Mexico. One such incident was on May 11, 2012 when the San Enrique hotel in Nogales, Sonora caught fire. The U.S. pulled their ladder truck close to the border fence and sprayed water on the building, helping the bomberos to extinguish the flames before it spread.

While there have not been many incidents like the San Enrique fire, the departments remember them with pride and mention them frequently. Pete Ashcraft, a captain and the senior officer for A-shift at Station One, in Nogales, Ariz. has been a firefighter for 19 years. After working in Nogales for so long, Ashcraft has had many experiences working with the bomberos.  He described the camaraderie between the departments. They can stop over to say “hi” or hang out with each other whenever they have time and are not working. “Firefighters are brothers all over the world, no matter what,” he said.

This camaraderie is partially responsible for the success of the bi-national agreement, said Bojorquez. “It’s the only border town that’s been working good…why? I guess its because the relations we have with Nogales, Sonora. The guys know us, we know them, I guess that’s why,” he said.

By: Christa Reynolds

November 2012

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