By Chris Gannon, writing for GESA (Global Emergency Services Action)
To see Parts 1+2 of this article on the complexity of Emergency Services donations, the various donor types, and how regulations play a role in the ecosystem, please see Part 1:
Donations can cause unintended strain
Donations of Emergency Services equipment to the Global South come from all kinds of sources and contain a variety of brands of equipment. Donating entities collect whatever they can and bundle goods into shipments that ideally fit the needs of the recipient. But the somewhat haphazard donations process can end up creating added pressure on the Global South recipient departments. After all, it is hard enough maintaining a standardized inventory of equipment. But imagine now having a mix of equipment, each with slightly different characteristics and attributes – gear, tools and vehicles with different manuals if you have them, different spare parts when you need them, specialist technical support if somehow you can get access to it locally, and often instructions that are not in the local language of recipient firefighters.
Moreover, I have seen donated gear arrive in recipient countries that is 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 of all, punctured fire hose.
Donations typically come with written disclaimers from some Global North organizations, absolving them from any warranty, guarantee and responsibility for accident, injury or mechanical failure after delivery. But legal liability is hardly the biggest concern of a recipient department looking to protect its personnel. Clear fit-for-duty conditions should always be met by a donation to ensure it serves its intended purpose.
Lastly, many donors expect the host country or recipient department to cover some costs – shipping, import duties and flights for volunteers offering training and attending the handover. And while there are good arguments for cost-sharing (including that it encourages accountability on the part of the recipient), these costs can be substantial for recipients who in many cases can’t afford basic, new assets. These costs put significant strain on the recipient departments and can result in donations being stuck in warehouses for months or years while recipients wait for someone to pay taxes and fees to get the equipment ‘released’ for use.
Are we encouraging risk?
I have seen many types of equipment that require regular, specialist care and statutory control that have arrived in the hands of overseas personnel having failed or exceeded the permissible standards expected in the country of origin. Used ladders, hoses, 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 with less regulatory protection. Firefighters in the Global South are no less brave than their counterparts in richer countries. The gear they use must still be safe.
It concerns me – and I have seen this in the field – that some kinds of sophisticated donated equipment often encourage 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 opportunities that Global North responders have.
Responders in emerging markets 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, unauthorized electricity connections, illegal building standards, and other hazards that make their operations especially precarious. But armed with their newly donated equipment, they sometimes assume that they are better 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?
Some donor agencies that send their personnel to give short-term, basic training issue their own ‘certificates of attendance and/or competence’. But attendance is not the same as mastery. A firefighter receiving a donation is unlikely to ask if the foreign professional is really qualified to teach them about a particular piece of equipment. Unless 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.
In many ways, professional guidance is even more important than the donated equipment itself. If we want to prevent donation-driven risk taking by Global South first responders, we need to not only donate equipment that is fit for duty but also support our donations with qualified people on the ground, working hand in hand with the local personnel for an appropriate period of time to correctly guide and certify users in operations and maintenance.
Donations should drive budget
Finally, donations do not automatically remedy the equipment and training void in emerging markets, and in some cases, they can actually exacerbate the problem. Global South firefighters asking for foreign aid are doing so because their local authorities either lack the necessary funds or don’t see their needs as a priority. But the truth is that in many nations’ governments, officials often have little understanding of the industry. They assume that donated used items are a handy solution to a budget shortfall. A short-term fix perhaps. But in the long term, the goal must be to motivate governments to address the real short- and long-term needs of their Emergency Services personnel and actually invest in the development of quality Emergency Services for their countries. A quick fix may take the pressure off temporarily, but the important discussion about long-term financing between departments and their governments needs to be happening sooner, not later.
In the end, there is no shortcutting quality. Donations need to be quality equipment, certified for use and ideally, where possible, the same or similar brands as those being used currently by recipients. Equipment needs to come with real training from practitioners with current expertise on the gear being received. Recipients need to be trained so the new equipment can make them safer, not create additional risk. And donations should not end a conversation about budget – they should be part of a conversation about higher standards and better service that relies on a variety of new, recycled and donated equipment that truly serves the ever-expanding needs of the global Emergency Services community.
Please keep an eye out for the fourth and final instalment of this article next month, where I will illustrate factors to consider when making a donation, as well as recommendations to ensure successful donations you can feel proud of.
Chris Gannon has spent 29 years in the industry as a national Fire Chief, government advisor, CEO of Gannon Emergency Solutions, and has built a reputation as a pioneer in reviewing and improving Emergency Services around the world. For more information, please visit www.gannonemergency.com or www.gannonemergencyusa.com.
GESA (Global Emergency Services Action)
GESA is an international non-profit founded in 2020 by leader companies in the Emergency Services sector. GESA is a coalition of companies, consultants and practitioners working together to change the future of the global Emergency Services marketplace. We are currently developing our flagship platform – the GESA Equipment Exchange – a web-based tool that will connect Global South departments with manufacturers, consultants, trainers and suppliers to tie donations to a sustainable, longer-term pipeline of sales and service. For more information, membership inquiries and more, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org