Firefighters around the world may share a common commitment, but they don’t all have the resources to get the job done.
To address this issue, Emergency Services personnel from developing nations often reach out to departments in the Global North asking for donations. And many organisations respond, sending equipment hoping to support the working lives of fellow first responders and make them safer.
I have been working to improve Emergency Services worldwide for over 20 years. Most of the calls I get are from governments, NGOs, and organisations in places where need is acute, or where a major tragedy has overwhelmed Emergency Services response capabilities. It’s during these projects that I often come across donated assets.
When tasked with setting up a national Fire Service from scratch for Turks and Caicos in 2002 – with no budget – my first instinct was to appeal to friends in our industry for help. Wearing a 30-year-old ‘professional’ fire helmet is far better than a plastic construction hat when responding to an emergency after all.
I was grateful for the overwhelming response, as offers of trucks, PPE, SCBA, rescue tools, ladders and more came pouring in. And at the time, I, like many others, thought the equipment was a real boost and, despite being old and imperfect, better than nothing. Now, 20 years and 39 projects later, my perspective has changed.
Who are the donors?
All kinds of donors offer used equipment to departments in need. Among the most common are:
ν Governments of industrialized nations.
ν Fire Services with exchange links/relationships with foreign counterparts.
ν Faith-based organizations and NGOs.
ν Service clubs and fraternal groups.
ν Individuals with connections to developing nations who lobby their own departments for donations.
The largest and most active category of these is the charities formed by retired or serving personnel who work to match equipment with need, typically either:
ν Registered charities (usually small, formal organizations with small budget and staff)
ν Even smaller, more informal groups that work through volunteers – groups that direct all of the resources they raise to project work
The people involved in these charities are amazing. Many have real expertise based on years of service. Many firefighters dedicate their vacation time and personal resources. But with limited time they can rarely spend more than a few days on training and handoff, and almost none are able to commit to the long-term capacity building fundamental for lasting success. Access to equipment is only part of the solution. Without a basic platform of policy, procedure, training and organisation in place, donated assets often have little impact. We can and need to do better.
‘Retired’ equipment – and how we can we make the most of it
In the Global North, fire departments are constantly pressed to streamline and cut costs, but some departments also have the resources to take still-valuable equipment out of service as they upgrade, enabling them to give this equipment away as an act of kindness.
Most Global North departments have scheduled equipment testing programmes where every item is periodically checked against set standards to ensure it is operationally safe, functional and meets manufacturer and country standards. Inspections are undertaken by service specialists, manufacturer’s agents, insurance companies, or external verifiers.
The two most common types of donated equipment are Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Why? Because they are critical life-safety items and the most carefully regulated by codes – like those of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
NFPA 1851 requires that PPE be retired 10 years after the manufacture date – period. This includes helmets, gloves, coats, pants, hoods and boots – which is a standard for gear, even if the equipment has never been used and was simply left in storage/reserve. NFPA 1852 stipulates that composite SCBA cylinders have a maximum operational life of 15 years, regardless of condition or hydrostatic performance.
I have debated this subject many times with Fire Chiefs who stubbornly insist that NFPA codes are too restrictive but I don’t agree. Would you wear the same clothes to work for 10 years? Of course not if you had other options given that this clothing has been exposed to all kinds of temperatures, contaminants and abuse. Even lightly used gear over 5–7 years old may be behind current safety standards for advanced cities. Think about how much better safety standards are on new cars versus cars manufactured 15 years ago!
And therein lies an opportunity – these standards are not just a guide; experts publish them in the NFPA after exhaustive research, scientific study and deliberation. The requirements help well-resourced services know when to retire items that could be obsolete or not well maintained. For departments I know it can feel frustrating to replace things that appear to be usable simply because law/policy dictates. But the law is the law. Once the gear’s life expires under law, then what? What should departments do with this mountain of gear that may still have life-saving capabilities but is now legally defined as obsolete?
The ‘Donation Zone’
Disposing of used equipment has historically been an expensive and complicated problem for donating departments and manufacturers. New environmental requirements in many Global North countries are putting even more focus on finding a ‘second life’ for donatable gear. Meanwhile, some retired assets may be used for non-live fire training or sold to non-firefighting users… much of it could be matched with departments in need.
Having a charity come to collect storerooms of ‘obsolete’ gear for shipment overseas may feel like an attractive option for Global North departments. And Global South firefighters are generally incredibly grateful to receive almost any international donation. But these same recipients are often surprised – even angry – to learn that much of this equipment is classified as obsolete in the donor country. They are dismayed to find that much donated is too damaged to be helpful (and thus now a disposal problem for the recipient department). The key lies in making sure every item donated is truly usable or ‘fit for purpose’.
We have learned from experience that there is frequently a time window – what I like to call the ‘Donation Zone’ – where retired, legally obsolete equipment from the Global North would safely, effectively fit the needs of departments that need equipment. It’s time to take better advantage of that window, getting that gear identified, inspected and out to departments in need. We can do it – without compromising standards or safety – but to do it at scale, we need a systematic approach like the one GESA is developing, focused on making all parts of the donations process faster, smarter and more sustainable, to support more firefighters around the world.
Please keep an eye out for Parts 3 and 4 of this article online, where I discuss how the wrong kind of donations can actually hurt departments, how logistical challenges impact long-term success, factors that affect donating, and how to ensure a donation you can feel proud of.
For more information, go to www.gesaction.org