Home | commentary | Why ECO123 is published in three languages…
and how the firefighters could improve their disaster management.

Why ECO123 is published in three languages…
and how the firefighters could improve their disaster management.

and how the firefighters could improve their disaster management.

Saturday 19th August 2023.

Communication between two people can only work well if they speak a common language. Isn’t that right? So, if a British guy strikes up a conversation in English with a Portuguese lady, without being able to speak Portuguese or any other language himself (as is usually the case), and the Portuguese lady doesn’t want to speak English, then the conversation will hit a dead end.

End of story? Far from it. This story is only just starting. Communication is a fascinating topic. As a reader of ECO123, you are free to choose the language you prefer. Try clicking on your mother tongue above, and then that of the person you’re talking to. This way you can learn Portuguese, English or German with any of the stories that appear in ECO123. If there is something you don’t understand, ECO123 gives you a choice. This is our editorial concept. A language class as it were. Are you with me so far?

Now picture the following scenario: the forest fire that initiated its deathly five-day course at a quarter to three on the afternoon of Saturday 5 August 2023, in Baiona in the southern Alentejo, could have been prevented if, first of all, the fire services heading towards the starting point of the fire from Odemira, 27.5 km away on the EN120, (30 minutes), had been a little quicker in getting going (things always move a bit more slowly in the Alentejo), and secondly if the Odemira firefighters and their radio sets had been synchronised with the ones operated by the Algarvian firefighters from Aljezur, Monchique etc.

In the Algarve, the upgrade of the fire brigade’s communication tools had already been completed. This was not, however, the case in Odemira, where forest fires tend to be a little less frequent, and where it is less common for fire services to operate across district borders in conjunction with their colleagues from the Algarve. Now, if a firefighter from Aljezur wishes to communicate with his colleague from Odemira by radio (which, for technical reasons, is often not possible in the midst of a fire), all hell breaks loose. For you will lose an enormous amount of valuable time when a “veículo de combate de incêndios florestais” (a wildfire combat vehicle) carrying five firefighters arrives at the source of the fire, but does not receive orders to start extinguishing it, as there is no communication taking place via the radio sets of the Odemira fire service. You’ve got to picture this, really. Communication between two people can only work if you are able to talk to each other on the same wavelength. And if two pairs of ears are listening to the words coming out of one mouth. This is how communication happens. Not that easy, is it? Life is indeed a challenge.

Now a forest fire can only be put out if the firefighters arrive as quickly as possible at the source of the fire. If they arrive within the first 15 minutes, they have a real chance of putting out the fire. There are no prizes for latecomers. If you arrive too late to begin with – and secondly if you can’t start extinguishing the fire as no order has been given to do so because the radio contact between the firefighter from Aljezur (located a little closer to the source of the fire, 15.9 km, or 17 minutes, away) and the headquarters located in Odemira is not working for technical reasons – then you’ll end up driving your fire-fighting vehicle with its tank full of water across the bridge over the dried-out Rio Seixe only to be faced with a disaster in the making, and will be left having to twiddle your thumbs. A desperate situation, isn’t it?

Now of course nobody wants to own up to this in public, which is why I’m asking the government to set up a parliamentary fact-finding inquiry in order to determine what could be done (maybe even) better, rather than just investigating how the fire was put out. Maybe it’s not just the radio sets that have to be synchronised; maybe it’s not just a question of upgrading the software. Maybe work starts at school, with the right sort of environmental education, and beyond that enabling people to deal with fire. In the summer, you simply don’t light a barbecue to grill your sardines. And you don’t throw a cigarette end from a moving car on to the road. For God’s sake, this kind of thing needs to be taught somewhere. At school? Or in life even!

Maybe science teachers should learn about our world in real terms. This involves children being taught how to distinguish a lime tree from an oak, eucalyptuses from acacias, or umbrella pines from cedars. But maybe that’s asking too much. I myself am looking after a child who is not learning anything at his school about protecting nature, and whose teachers are unable to transmit any knowledge about the connections that exist within nature. These teachers are nearly always on strike, and if, for once, they are actually working, they frequently drink far too much coffee and spout out a lot of theoretical garbage to their students.

Hey, Teachers, we have a problem with the water supply in Portugal. How can we solve the water problem? Do you have any simple solutions?

One of the reasons why our forests are drying out and burning is that they are forests consisting of “money-hungry” monocultures. If we were to use the scarce resources available (money, water, etc.) carefully and invest them properly, and if we were to think seriously about how we can improve communication between ourselves, we’d be taking a giant leap forward. If this was only about radio sets… You might perhaps have heard that mobile phones are now available in Portugal…


Uwe Heitkamp (62)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123. Translations: Dina Adão, John Elliot, Ruth Correia, Patrícia Lara, Kathleen Becker


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