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After Hurricane María, These Firefighters Responded Without Power. Now, They Have a Renewable Source.

Direct Relief and AbbVie provided a grant to equip the Cataño fire station with renewable energy, so firefighters can respond effectively to future disasters.


Hurricane Maria

Firefighters at the Cataño fire station in Puerto Rico and a Direct Relief staff member examine solar panels newly installed on the station roof. (Ana Umpierre/Direct Relief)

Firefighters are committed to saving lives. It’s the job, after all. But a simple power outage can make the job much harder to do.

José Fernández has been a firefighter for 24 years. He was working at the fire station in Cataño, Puerto Rico, when Hurricane María wreaked havoc on the island. Cataño is on the coastline, and Fernández remembers being at risk of storm surge during the hurricane.


When the storm was over, firefighters like Fernández were tasked with rescue and recovery work, which included removing debris from the streets. The station itself had only minor damage, but neighboring communities were harder hit.

And in the weeks following the hurricane, fires caused by power generators were not uncommon.

Fernández remembered responding to a call from a woman who lost everything when her house burned down in a generator-related fire. “For me, aside from the emergency, every time we watch somebody lose something because of a fire, it’s devastating,” he said.

On their own

A lack of power caused Puerto Rico’s post- María fires. It also made it harder to respond.

Communications were down for much of the island, so although firefighters could respond quickly to a blaze, they couldn’t call for backup if they needed it. With only seven firefighters and four paramedics to cover two separate shifts, they were on their own. “It was just those of us who were working that day, Fernández recalled.

Like much of the island, fire stations relied on diesel generators for months. “We were basically the only ones [in the community] who had electricity because of the power generator,” Fernández said.

The firehouse in Cataño became a shelter and point of contact in the aftermath of the storm. Neighbors went to the station to charge their phones, connect their medical equipment, and even store their medicines.

Fernández described members of the community returning the favor, bringing food to the firemen while they did their work.

However, he said, the fire station continued to lose power approximately six times a month.

New energy

“Power is everything for first responders, and a big reason is because of communications,” said Hunter Johansson, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Solar Responders.

Johansson saw the toll Hurricane María took on the island, and the indispensable role that firefighters and other first responders played in recovery efforts. He wanted to help them – and their communities – by making sure they had the resources necessary to respond to future disasters.

Firefighters at the Cataño, Puerto Rico fire station pose for a photo. (Ana Umpierre/Direct Relief)
Firefighters at the Cataño, Puerto Rico fire station pose for a photo with a Direct Relief staff member. (Ana Umpierre/Direct Relief)

To make that happen, he outfitted the Cataño station with renewable energy, with support from Direct Relief.

The energy will ensure that the station’s 10 firefighters and eight paramedics can do their jobs – and call for backups – even if another disaster compromises power and communications in Puerto Rico.

As part of Direct Relief and AbbVie’s commitment to supporting first responders, a grant of more than $90,000 was awarded to Solar Responders to install the solar panels and battery storage system that the Cataño station needed.

With AbbVie’s support, Direct Relief has provided renewable energy to health centers across Puerto Rico, allowing them to continue caring for patients even in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency.

“Installing renewable and resilient energy systems in strategic locations such as fire stations and health clinics on the island will not only allow for continuity of operations after an emergency but will also empower first responders,” said Ivonne Rodríguez-Wiewall, executive advisor for Direct Relief in Puerto Rico said.

For Johansson, being able to provide renewable energy to first responders “is a reaffirmation that they can do their work.”

Fernández is certain that the renewable energy system will help them be better prepared for another emergency. “For us, it is a relief to be able to rely on that resource,” he said.

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