SXM Airport Rescue & Fire-Fighting Department Turns 18

When 25 young St. Maarteners moved in to establish the Rescue and Fire-Fighting Department of the Princess Juliana International Airport 18 years ago, there was no way they could have known that theirs would be a baptism of fire – literally – as weeks later, the biggest natural disaster the island has ever known hit with unrepentant fury. 

Manilo Penijn, one of those youngsters, who today heads the department, remembers the date like it was yesterday.

"We were just established on July 25, 1995 and you know… on September 5 of the same year, we had to face Hurricane Luis," he said. "That was the most important and most difficult moment we have faced in our 18 years of existence."

"Luis was scary; a learning process, but scary. We couldn’t go home to our families. We all had minimum experience at the time; that made it doubly tough."

Those memories, even though they still linger, have been sifted through 18 years of dedicated service and constant training to remain up to date with the most modern fire-fighting techniques and equipment.

Now 28 strong, the R&FF Department of SXM continues to lay emphasis on training, readiness and well-maintained modern equipment.

"We are well-equipped," Penijn asserts. "And as for training, the whole department is undergoing rigorous NSTA training. We’re in transition to the American system and we’re half-way through with it now. There are six fire-fighters from the Department currently training in Canada. They will be back in the second week of August."

Penijn said the Department has five fire trucks, while three are required to be available at all times. The equipment is compatible with the ones the government Fire Department has.

"Cooperation with them is at a professional level and we can use their equipment and they can use ours whenever the need arises because as a matter of fact, we have the same manufacturer," Penijn said.

He continued: "We have three shifts of nine firefighters each. The goal is to have three more so that the shifts would become of 10 members each."

For Penijn, education is key to making a good career out of fire-fighting. "It has to be a calling, too. You have to be physically and mentally fit, motivated, energetic and willing to work in a team setting because fire-fighting is not an individual thing."

Although 18 is the age of maturity and hence a milestone, Penijn said they’re keeping the activities to mark the anniversary rather intimate and internal. This is not to say that the Rescue and Fire-Fighting Department is party shy. To the contrary, Penijn pointed to the active involvement of his staff in the celebrations of Valentine’s Day this year.

"And you’ll see us in action again this Sunday with the Bon Voyage event for the students leaving the island to study in Holland," he added.

The fire-fighters will be executing a water canon to send off the youngsters with "blessings".