By Chris Gannon, writing for GESA (Global Emergency Services Action)
Firefighters around the world may share a common commitment, but it doesn’t mean they all have the resources they need to get the job done. As a result, Emergency Services personnel from developing nations often reach out to departments and donors in the Global North asking for donations of equipment. Some stories are heart wrenching, and many organisations respond, sending all kinds of equipment in the genuine hope that it will make the working lives of fellow first responders safer. And while donations are rarely a long-term solution, there is no doubt in their minds that wearing a 30-year-old ‘professional’ fire helmet is far better than wearing a plastic construction hat to respond to a true emergency.
I have been reviewing and working to improve fire and rescue services worldwide for over 20 years. Some contracts I get are with wealthy corporations that want the highest level of protection for their private island, industrial facility, or airport; these clients have almost no financial limitations and insist on the very latest technology and training for their personnel.
However, most of the calls I get are from governments, NGOs and organisations in locations where the need is desperate, or where a major tragedy has highlighted weakness in Emergency Services response. It’s during these projects that I often come across donated assets and the impact they have. So, I certainly get an interesting perspective when it comes to the haves and have-nots of the Emergency Services world.
When I was given the task of setting up a national Fire Service in the Turks and Caicos Islands from scratch in 2002 with no budget, my first instinct was to appeal to friends in the industry for help to get the project rolling. I was immensely grateful for the overwhelming response as offers of trucks, PPE, breathing apparatus, rescue tools, ladders and more came pouring in. 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, 20 years and 39 international projects later, my perspective has changed.
So who are the donors?
There are all kinds of donors who offer used (or sometimes new/extra) equipment to departments in need, including:
- Governments of industrialized nations with goodwill programmes.
- Cities or Fire Services that have exchange links or relationships with counterparts in other countries.
- Religious organizations or faith-based NGOs.
- Service clubs and fraternal groups.
- Individuals with a family or other connection to a developing nation and who lobby their own department to provide donations and assistance.
However, the largest and most active group of donors are the charities formed by retired or serving personnel, and these fall into two broad groups:
- Registered charities that function as formal (usually still small) organisations that devote a percentage of the money they receive to fund their activities, with employees, offices and sometimes transport.
- More informal groups (often even smaller organizations) that work with volunteers and direct all of the resources they raise to project work.
The people involved in these charities are amazing; I have worked with many of them in the past and some of their stories and achievements are extraordinary. By the time donations finally end up in the hands of the intended recipients, the amount of hard work, effort, phone calls, e-mails, visits, collecting, fundraising, packing, delivering and begging favours to get things done can be immense.
Many professional firefighters dedicate their vacation time and personal resources to the cause. But, with their time so limited, they are rarely able to spend more than a few days handing over and instructing local personnel at the destination communities. Certain charities do revisit projects and support identified countries year after year with material aid and training. Almost none, however, are able to commit to long-term in-country efforts – the kind of capacity building fundamental for long-term success.
Moreover, equipment alone is only part of the problem – and should be the final piece of the solution, not the first. I have seen time and time again that unless a basic platform of policy, procedure, training and organisation is in place, donated assets often have little impact. Short-term interventions that are focused on equipment and offered by small, under-resourced groups with limited logistical capabilities … Driven by good intentions, but can it work better?
Please keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article next month, where I will dive deeper into the retired equipment donations landscape and how it is impacted by regulations or the lack thereof.
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