Following on from the first part of this article in the previous issue, 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, chemical protection suits, medical supplies, radiation and gas monitoring devices, 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 worrying fact that donated equipment often 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. But armed with their newly donated PPE and SCBA, they believe that they are more protected to enter those risks than before when they had nothing.
Ask yourself if you would honestly be okay with using donated 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 foreign 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 outside their own country, the practice is questionable.
Telling someone that he is certified to wear SCBA in a house fire after only a few days of rudimentary, improvised 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 and can actually exacerbate the problem. The 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 FD 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 international 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 vehicles and equipment, never mind having to familiarize yourself with a multitude of different items where information, spares, and specialist technical support are not locally available. The donations also rarely come with instructions in the host language.
I have seen 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.
But the darkest side of the practice is the evidence of corruption by some organisations receiving aid. I have seen many examples of officials in Federations and FD’s selling donations for profit. On one occasion, a Fire Chief in South America called me to say he was being offered to buy equipment that had just been donated to a neighbouring city by an international charity.
Corruption in some countries is rife and even penetrates emergency services, assets that are not purchased by local authorities are rarely added to inventories or recorded in registers and therefore vulnerable to mismanagement.
Donations come with written disclaimers from some charities absolving them from any warranty; guarantee; and responsibility for accident, injury, or mechanical failure after delivery. But is that really showing a duty of care? Some clear conditions should always be attached to the donation to ensure it serves its intended purpose.
Monetary gain is not restricted to the recipients either, I have seen invoices issued by at least one charity for thousands of Pounds for trucks that they received for free too.
Finally, certain charities will often expect the host country to cover shipping costs, all import duties and flights for their volunteers to discharge training and attend the handover. This may sound reasonable, but if the foreign FD can’t afford even basic new assets, don’t expect them to finance other costs either, it puts real strain on them and can result in donations being stuck in warehouses for months or years, waiting for someone to pay for the taxes.
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 confetti and 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 from Customs offices. But the FD 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 PPE to a tropical climate isn’t appropriate and can be potentially dangerous.
Donating a long wheelbase truck to an ancient city with narrow streets where it could even operate is another example I have seen first hand. 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. Importation of used equipment is completely prohibited in some countries.
Supporting other departments
If equipment becomes unreliable, fails its scheduled testing or inspection, or is uneconomical to repair, it should be disposed of – period.
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 extra money or effort, but it makes the donation so much more beneficial and morally correct.
The best policy is to lobby manufacturers for donations of ex demo product, 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 business for them.
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.
For more information, go to www.gannonemergency.com