Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Origin Of Mallorca's "Bomberos"

Today on the Son Castelló industrial estate in Palma, there is an art, design and craft market. Nothing unusual about that you might think, and there is indeed nothing unusual about such a market. But its location makes it rather different. It's taking place at a fire station. The old station for Palma's firefighters.

In 1967, the first industrial estate in Spain was inaugurated. The Associació Sindical d'Indústries de Mallorca (Asima), which was behind Son Castelló, had land that it was willing to cede to the town hall. With so much industry about to be created, Asima would probably have felt that it would be useful to have a fire station close at hand. Which is exactly what the association got. It now wants the station back (or at least the building and land), as the fire crews have moved elsewhere.

Away from Palma, last month the mayor of Inca, Virgilio Moreno, made an offer to the Council of Mallorca. The old Yanko factory on the road to Binissalem and the land are going spare (sort of). The mayor has suggested that the Council might wish to locate its fire service headquarters at the factory site. There's plenty of space and the location would be good, given Inca's central position on the island. The Council may well take up the kind offer.

These two stories - one of a former fire station and the other for a new and grand fire HQ - reflect the changing development of a service whose members, like others in the emergency services, are so richly deserving of hero status. Yet despite the absolutely vital role that the fire service in Mallorca offers, its actual story is not one that has been well told. 

So when did it all start? Well, before actually getting to Mallorca, it's worth looking at what had been happening elsewhere. The first documented evidence in Spain of something equating to a fire service was in Madrid in 1577. This was notable for its reference to carpenters and master builders, who were integrated into this primitive service. Two centuries later, the guilds of builders and carpenters were ordered by the Captain General of Barcelona to take part in putting fires out. So was the army, while churches were compelled to ring bells in such a way if there was a "foc"; assuming, that is, that it wasn't churches which were on fire.

In the nineteenth century various firemen's companies were established in major cities. The Compañia de Zapadores Bomberos was the official title. Zapadores means sappers. Bomberos ("bombers" in Catalan) we are familiar with. But where did that word come from? The original Latin root, "bombus", isn't totally helpful. That meant a loud or intense sound. While the Spanish "bomba" does mean bomb, it was and is also a pump. The word "bombero" was first officially noted in the Spanish Royal Academy's dictionary of 1843. It was the person who manages the hydraulic pump for fires and other uses.

There were, therefore, companies of firemen cropping up all over Spain, but it has been noted that they were put together with very little effort made to understand how many members they needed. It would appear that the small city of Gijón (only some 30,000 inhabitants) was the first place to have a permanent and dedicated brigade of six men. Everywhere else was still grabbing hold of carpenters, builders and whoever to make up somewhat haphazard companies.

This was the case in Palma. The company was in fact founded in 1855. By 1877 the mayor was issuing general rules in the case of fire. He, the mayor, was the only person who could direct firefighting, and those taking his orders were of course the carpenters and builders. It wasn't until twenty years later that the regulation of the Palma firemen's corps was issued. Under this, there was an organisational structure and hierarchy of command. Something resembling a modern fire service was established for the first time, though it was 1938 when this service was fully professionalised as the municipal firemen's corps.

The Civil War and especially the first couple of decades of the Franco regime were to have a negative impact on fire services. Basically, there wasn't the money to fund them, and the onus was to be placed on town halls with populations of more than 20,000 people, most of which didn't have any money either. Finally, in 1975, there was a coordinated effort. Palma kept its fire service, but otherwise everything came under the control of the provincial delegation (as it was then). Forest fires, as much as anything else, forced the issue.

But it was to be a few more years, 1984 in fact, when the service for prevention and rescue was established by the Council of Mallorca. This became what we have today - the Cuerpo de Bomberos de Mallorca - and with it came four original principal centres in Inca, Manacor, Llucmajor and Calvia.

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