Many fire departments in North America, Western Europe, and Japan have received requests for donations from less privileged counterparts in developing countries. Some respond and send all kinds of equipment in the genuine hope that it will make the working lives of fellow firefighters more efficient and safer.
Since 2001, I have been designing, reviewing, and reforming fire and rescue services worldwide. Some contracts I get are with wealthy corporations that want the highest level of protection for their private island, industrial facility, or mansions; these clients have almost no financial limitations and insist on the very latest technology and training for their personal first responders.
However, most of the calls I get are from governments, non-governmental organizations, and organizations in developing countries where the need is desperate or there has been a major tragedy highlighting weaknesses with local fire or rescue agencies. It's during these projects that I get to see firsthand the donation of used assets and the impact they have. So I certainly get an interesting perspective when it comes to the haves and have-nots.
When I was first given the task of setting up a fire department from scratch in the Caribbean in 2002 with no budget, my first instinct was to appeal to friends in the industry for any donations to get the project rolling. I was immensely grateful for the overwhelming response as offers of trucks, turnouts, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), rescue tools, ladders, and more came pouring in from fellow chiefs and former colleagues. At the time, I, like many others from a modern fire-rescue background, thought that the equipment was a real boost and, despite being old and imperfect, better than nothing.
Now, 13 years and 33 countries later, that perspective has changed.
Who Are The Donors?
Used fire-rescue apparatus and equipment is either purchased by the donor agency or gifted by the owner, state, city, fire department, dealer, or manufacturer.
The donors generally include the following:
- Governments of industrialized nations with goodwill programs.
- Municipalities or cities that have exchange links or relationships with counterparts in other countries.
- Religious organizations.
- Service clubs and fraternal organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Masons, etc.
- Individuals or firefighters who may have a family or other connection to a developing nation and lobby their own department to provide donations and assistance.
However, the largest and most active group of donors is the charities formed by retired or serving personnel in developed countries, and these fall into two broad groups:
- Those that are registered charities or structured organizations and function by using a percentage of the money they receive to fund their activities. They typically employ secretaries, administrators, and accountants; own assets such as vans and office equipment; and fund their operational expenses such as rent, flights, shipping, fuel, stationary, phone charges, etc.
- Those that spend none of the raised funds on their activities; direct all of the aid to each project; and rely entirely on voluntary efforts, favors, or partial funding from the country requesting help.
The volunteers who operate the firefighter charities are excellent, motivated people who often invest their own time and money fundraising and pleading with departments and municipalities for donations to help their less fortunate colleagues in other countries. The vast majority do this for religious, fraternal, or humanitarian reasons.
When donations finally end up in the hands of the intended recipients, the amount of hard work, effort, long hours of phone calls, e-mails, visits, collecting, fundraising, packing, delivering, and begging favors to get things done can be immense.
Certain charities do revisit projects and support identified countries year after year with material aid and training, but with volunteer time so limited they are rarely able to spend more than a few days instructing local personnel and are unable to commit to permanent development projects.
The volunteers who do spend time working in sometimes challenging conditions must be applauded. Having spoken to many of the volunteers, it is clear that their hope is for their short-term help to develop into something more sustainable, especially if funds will not continue.
Donations provide third-world firefighters with assets that they don't have and could not normally afford or access. Many share turnouts or have none at all; there is no doubt in their minds that wearing a 30-year-old "professional" fire helmet is far better than a plastic construction hat.
Many quality donations have improved the professional lives of many first responders--and the communities they serve.
In the current global economy, where departments are being asked to streamline and cut costs, there are few in a position to take valuable front line apparatus or equipment out of service and simply give it away as an act of kindness; if they did, the chief would soon be looking for a new job.
Modern fire departments have scheduled vehicle and equipment maintenance programs where every item is periodically checked against set standards to ensure it is operationally safe, is functional, and meets the performance criteria stipulated by the manufacturer or adopted code.
The inspections are undertaken by nominated specialists within the department, manufacturer's agents, insurance companies, or external verifiers such as an independent service provider (ISP). An ISP is an independent third party used by fire departments to perform advanced inspection, advanced cleaning, or advanced repair. Fire departments and ISPs are then randomly verified in turn by inspectors approved by safety organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories, the International Organization for Standardization, or SEI.
Internal and external codes exist to provide guidance on maximum permissible lifespans.
When equipment that appears to be perfectly okay has to be replaced after a set time, it can be frustrating and expensive for any department. If the state or national law adopts codes of practice, such as those of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), under no circumstances can the equipment then be used by other firefighters in the same organization for operational use. Departments are then faced with a dilemma: What do they do with this mountain of gear that is now legally defined as obsolete?
Some retired assets may still be used for nonlive fire training purposes, as long as it is clearly marked as such. Others go to nonfirefighting users. But a great quantity end up being donated overseas, either directly or through donors.
PPE and SCBA
It's no surprise that the two most common items of donated equipment are personal protective equipment (PPE) and SCBA. Why? Because they are critical life safety items and the two most carefully regulated by codes.
In the United States, NFPA 1851 is the standard for fire departments in selecting, inspecting, cleaning, repairing, storing, testing, and retiring the head-to-toe PPE worn by firefighters for structural and proximity firefighting. It is a companion standard to NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. NFPA 1851 requires that PPE be retired 10 years after the date of manufacture--period. This includes helmets, gloves, coats, pants, hoods, and boots even if never used and simply left in storage or reserve.
These dates are not just a guide; industry experts publish them in the NFPA after exhaustive research, scientific study, and deliberation.
The NFPA committee thinks this requirement is necessary to rid the United States fire service (and other nations that adopt the same code) of obsolete, poorly maintained PPE that poses safety and health risks. History has shown that the 10-year life expectancy is the maximum for functional use and technological obsolescence for gear that is seldom used. This does not mean that departments wait until PPE is 10 years old before retiring it. Busy fire departments have found that PPE sometimes lasts only two or three years.
I have debated this subject many times with fire chiefs who stubbornly insist that NFPA codes are too restrictive and only designed to benefit the manufacturers and dealers. The question I ask in these debates is: Would you wear the same uniform shirt, pants, or shoes to work for 10 years? The answer is no, so why expect more than a decade of use from clothing that has been exposed to all kinds of temperatures, toxins, and abuse.
For the doubters out there who disagree with the standard, take a look at National Institute of Standards and Technology Technical Note 1746 (http://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/TechnicalNotes/NIST.TN.1746.pdf). This presents scientific proof that confirms that PPE degrades over time, even with little operational use.
NFPA 1852, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), deals with the lifespan for SCBA cylinders. Older steel and aluminum cylinders have variable service lifespans that are subject to regular hydrostatic testing results. The vast majority of cylinders in use today are composite and these have a maximum operational life of 15 years, regardless of hydrostatic performance.
Some donors argue that they are shipping composite cylinders that are in A1 condition, are lightly used, or have come from reserve with no operational use. But condition and testing have nothing to do with usable life. It is 15 years from the date of manufacture. Period.
In addition to air cylinders, pressure reducers, harnesses, personal alert safety system devices, face masks, filters, etc., are all subject to scheduled specialist inspection and periodic maintenance.
Some donors argue that just because equipment exceeds published dates that apply in the United States, it is still okay for firefighters "over there," where NFPA codes don't exist. The problem is that the codes don't exist "over there" for a reason: The people asking for aid are poorly resourced and often don't have any published codes of practice or the benefit of understanding the vital facts that relate to equipment use, care, and longevity.
When I explain the systems of scheduled maintenance and inspection required by the manufacturer, or insurer, and the regulatory codes that govern its recommended usable life, firefighters in even the poorest countries are surprised, shocked, and sometimes angry that the gear they are getting is classified as obsolete; no longer suitable for use by firefighters in the donor country; and, in some cases, just plain dangerous.
In addition to PPE and SCBA, I have seen other items of equipment that require regular, specialist care and statutory control but that have arrived in the hands of overseas personnel having failed or exceeded the permissible standards expected in the country of origin.
Used ladders, hose, pumps, haz-mat suits, EMT supplies, radiation and gas monitoring devices, ropes and lines, lifejackets, vertical rescue equipment, etc. all cascade their way down to countries where they are used and trusted by those less enlightened but no less brave.
It is a common and worrying fact that donated equipment encourages firefighters to tackle emergencies that they have no training or ability to handle. In many cases, they expose themselves to far higher risk, as they have neither the experience nor the training that first-world responders have. They don't have the luxury of calling the local power or gas company to isolate the supply to a property before they enter. They might face stored domestic gas bottles, illicit electricity connections, illegal building standards, and other hazards that make their operations more precarious than our own.
Ask yourself if you would honestly be okay with using equipment that has failed certification or passed its usable date in your own daily emergencies, let alone under these circumstances. The unions certainly wouldn't allow it.
Some donor agencies that send their personnel to give short-term basic training issue their own "certificates of attendance and/or competence." A firefighter might not stop to ask if the professional who is teaching them is really qualified to deem them competent. Unless the certifications are endorsed or recognized by a genuine standards agency in the host country and the instructors have current qualifications and legal authority to issue them inside and outside their own country, the practice should stop.
Telling someone that he is certified to wear SCBA in a house fire after only a few days of rudimentary training is sometimes as dangerous as the obsolete set they will be wearing when they go into that same fire.
Donated vehicles and equipment need to be supported by qualified people on the ground working hand in hand with the personnel for an appropriate period of time to correctly guide and certify users in operations and maintenance. Professional guidance is even more important than the material.
Donations do not automatically remedy the situation of need and can actually prolong the lack of attention. The paid overseas firefighters asking for aid are doing so because their local authorities either have no funding available or don't see them as a social priority. Government officials have even less understanding or knowledge of the industry and assume that donated used items are a solution to their fire department problems. This hinders the recipients in getting the government to address their real needs and actually invest.
Government officials will usually attend the handover of donations by foreign agencies; this is where they can be used effectively. Certified donations should be seen as short-term aid used to create public and government interest, stimulate debate, highlight needs, and attract publicity and as a method of getting new purchases into future budgets.
Donations come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and brands; there is little uniformity. Charities collect whatever they are given and bundle shipments into a fair and balanced selection of gear. This can actually create added pressure on the receiving overseas department. It's hard enough maintaining a standardized inventory of trucks and equipment, never mind having to familiarize yourself with a multitude of different items where data, spares, and specialist technical support are not locally available. The donations also rarely come with manufacturer's instructions in the host language.
There is donated equipment clearly marked as out of service (OOS), unserviceable (U/S), unrepairable, failed, and even "unsafe--do not use." Also common is damaged or incomplete equipment; PPE that is torn, still soiled with blood, or without thermal liners; cracked helmets with no face shields or inner shell; SCBA masks with no harnesses or exhalation valves; seized pumps; and, the most common, punctured fire hose.
Donations have come with written disclaimers from charities absolving them from any warranty; guarantee; and responsibility for accident, injury, or mechanical failure after delivery. Is that really charitable or even moral?
Finally, certain charities will often expect the host country to cover shipping costs, all import duties, and flights for their volunteers to attend the handover ceremony and discharge a few days of training.
Before Considering Aid
First and foremost, not all donations being shipped worldwide are junk. A fair share of assets that are in certified condition have become available for reasons other than failure or expiration. Charitable aid is important, and there are opportunities to donate vehicles and equipment that are still in usable condition to the less fortunate that will make a genuine difference.
But just because you are donating humanitarian equipment to firefighters in need doesn't mean that every local authority in the destination doesn't have import rules and regulations and will wave everything through with thanks. The firefighters requesting aid are often volunteers with no government affiliation and no special exemptions. In many countries, laws are being introduced to restrict the age of vehicles and items being allowed to enter the country--even if they are donations.
Some donors have stopped trying to assist certain countries because they want to see their assets in use and not wait years for them to be liberated. But the fire department asking for aid doesn't get any choice. To assist the departments, research their actual situation and help them identify what they really need, not just what they want or just what you have available. Sending a high-volume pumper to a community with no hydrants or heavy winter turnouts to a tropical climate isn't appropriate and can be potentially dangerous.
Donating a traditional United States truck to an ancient city with narrow streets is another problem. Vehicles will not run for long on different local fuel grades, high altitude, poor road conditions, and difficult environments. Qualifying the aid makes it so much more valuable. Don't expect the receiving department to raise funds to accept gear that is irrelevant to their needs and will just occupy a store gathering dust. Many developing nations will still require emissions testing for vehicles and demand that they are converted to left or right hand drive where appropriate. Used equipment is prohibited in some countries.
Supporting Other Departments
Donating apparatus and equipment allows organizations and departments to help the development and maintenance of the fire service in other countries. But if apparatus or equipment becomes unreliable, fails its scheduled testing or inspection, or is uneconomical to repair, it should be disposed of--period.
Even poor firefighters can be offended by unwashed, contaminated, or damaged PPE. Soiled and poorly maintained PPE poses undue safety and health risks to firefighters, including those in poorer countries who do not have the same level of training.
The best policy is to lobby manufacturers for donations of ex demo or items with slight flaws that have no bearing on performance or safety. If manufacturers are convinced that an initial donation can lead to brand recognition, positive publicity, relationships, etc., it can often lead to future orders.
Donate responsibly and never send damaged or incomplete equipment. All donated items should be in date, in serviceable condition, and retested or recertified by the manufacturer. It may cost a little money, but it makes the donation so much more beneficial and morally correct.
Our equipment protects us and helps us to protect the lives of others. If you wouldn't or shouldn't use it, don't expect someone else to.