It’s a sad fact that less-privileged firefighters often reach out to developed nations asking if any unwanted equipment could be donated to help their situation. 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 firefighters safer.
Donations are a route to providing third-world firefighters with assets that they don’t have and could not normally afford or access. Many share PPE 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.
Since 2001, I have been 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 airport; these clients have almost no financial limitations and insist on the very latest technology and training for their first responders.
However, most of the calls I get are from governments, NGOs and organisations in developing countries where the need is desperate, or there has been a major tragedy highlighting weakness in emergency-service 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.
When I was given the task of setting up a national fire service 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, 16 years and 34 international projects later, that perspective has changed.
Who are the donors?
Donors generally fall into the following categories:
- Governments of industrialised nations with goodwill programmes.
- Cities or Fire Services that have exchange links or relationships with counterparts in other countries.
- Religious organisations.
- Service clubs and fraternal groups.
- Individuals or firefighters who may have 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:
- Those that are registered charities 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.
- 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, favours, or partial funding from the country requesting help.
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, emails, visits, collecting, fundraising, packing, delivering and begging favours to get things done can be immense.
Most of these charities rely on professional firefighters to dedicate their personal holiday allocations to the cause and with their time so limited, are rarely able to spend more than a few days handing over and instructing local personnel once the assets have arrived at the destination.
Certain charities do revisit projects and support identified countries year after year with material aid and training but are unable to commit to permanent development projects which is fundamental. 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.
The volunteers who do spend time working in challenging conditions must be applauded. Their hope is for the short-term help to develop into something more sustainable.
In the current global economy, where Fire Services are being constantly pressed to streamline and cut costs, there are few in a position to take valuable front-line vehicles or equipment out of service and simply give them away as an act of kindness; if they did, the Chief would soon be looking for a new job.
Modern FRS have scheduled vehicle and equipment testing programs where every item is periodically checked against set standards to ensure it is operationally safe, functional and meets the performance criteria stipulated by the manufacturer or adopted code. The inspections are undertaken by nominated service specialists, manufacturer’s agents, insurance companies, or external verifiers such as an independent service provider (ISP).
Internal and external codes exist to provide guidance on maximum permissible lifespans.
Some FDs lease their assets but for those who own their equipment it can be frustrating and expensive to replace things that appear to be perfectly okay after a set period of time because law or policy dictates.
But, like it or not, if the policy or law adopts standards, 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 organisation for operational use. FDs are then faced with a dilemma: What do they do with this mountain of gear that is now legally defined as obsolete?
It is an expensive and complicated disposal problem, FDs or leasing companies have to go to extreme lengths to ensure that equipment cannot be used again operationally. Some retired assets may still be used for non-live fire-training purposes, as long as it is clearly marked as such. Others are sold to commercial re-sellers who offer the equipment to non-firefighting end users, or overseas buyers.
The option of a charity coming to collect store rooms full of the obsolete gear with no resale value and send it overseas, is often a very attractive one.
PPE and SCBA
It’s no surprise that the two most common items of donated equipment are personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (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 on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.
NFPA 1851 requires that PPE be retired ten years after the date of manufacture, period. This includes helmets, gloves, coats, trousers, 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 ten-year life expectancy is the maximum for functional use and technological obsolescence for gear that is seldom used. This does not mean that FDs wait until PPE is ten years old before retiring it. Busy FD’s have found that PPE sometimes lasts only one or two years.
I have debated this subject many times with Fire Chiefs in the US who stubbornly insist that NFPA codes are too restrictive and are only designed to benefit manufacturers. The question I ask in these debates is: Would you wear the same uniform shirt, trousers, or shoes to work for ten 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, contamination 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 at http://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/TechnicalNotes/NIST.TN.1746.pdf.
I attended a presentation of this report by the authors and it delivers scientific proof which 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 aluminium 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 or internal/external condition.
In addition to cylinders, pressure reducers, harnesses, SCBA distress signal units, face masks, filters, etc. are all subject to scheduled specialist inspection and periodic maintenance too.
The most common argument I hear on this subject is that just because equipment exceeds published dates that apply in their organisation or country, it is still okay for firefighters ‘over there’ where NFPA or other 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.
Most firefighters are incredibly grateful and excited to receive international donations but in some cases their joy really is misplaced. When I explain and develop systems of scheduled maintenance and inspection and recommended usable life, firefighters in even the poorest countries are surprised 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, plain dangerous.
In Mexico recently, a donation included cylinders that had been drilled to prevent use, what benefit is that? It’s an insult.
In the second part of this article, we will look at how donating equipment may be seen as the right thing to do but in fact, it may just be encouraging risk.
For more information, go to www.gannonemergency.com