Firefighter humanitarian group expands aid to start 2nd decade

By Rick Markley, Guest Blogger

This year, the International Fire Relief Mission turns 10. I’m fortunate to have been part of that group for much of that time. Over ten years, most organizations will change in scale, scope and depth — IFRM is no different.

IFRM was created following a 2007 visit to a local fire station in Moldova. Since inception, IFRM has visited 13 cities in 8 countries, delivering enough PPE to fully outfit nearly 4,000 firefighters.

For those unfamiliar, the International Fire Relief Mission collects donated firefighting and EMS equipment from departments in the United States and ships that equipment to fire departments in developing countries, usually in quantities large enough to outfit 300 firefighters. IFRM also dispatches a team to educate the recipient firefighters on how to properly and safely use the donated equipment.

IFRM does not function as a disaster-relief agency. Rather, it’s goal is to solve chronically inadequate fire protection by working with local and federal officials to use the donation as a foundation for building a sustainable fire service. This often means it can take months, sometimes years, for a community to get the necessary pieces in place to be approved for IFRM donations.

IFRM often returns to communities and neighboring communities to provide additional equipment and educational support as their fire services grow. Again, the goal is to give local authorities the tools and knowledge to build an effective fire service. You can check this page if you are interested in starting a tool business and want to learn about tools.

It is in these areas of planning and supporting sustainability where I’ve seen the most change, or maturity, in IFRM’s mission during the past decade. While the group still provides the basics such as hand tools, PPE and SCBA on every trip, it’s expanded to provide fitness testing, wildland fire training, extrication training and EMS training as needed. It’s also delved into community fire protection needs assessments, fire department organizational planning and fire station planning.

As you can imagine, this is difficult to do when the all-volunteer group is in the United States and the recipient departments are half way around the world. One of IFRM’s next growth areas highlights these difficulties.

It’s often been repeated that the best fire is the one that never occurs. The most effective way to prevent firefighters and civilians from dying in fire is to prevent those fires from taking place.

And that, of course, is a problem all developed nations have wrestled with — some with greater success than others.

Those who have or work with a community risk-reduction program understand that to be effective, they must use overlapping layers of education, engineering and enforcement to best reach all corners of their communities. And those who have done this work also understand that the most important first steps are knowing which questions to ask to determine the levels of risk.

Recycle your department’s old gear for use by firefighters worldwide. Consider financial donations by coordinating local fundraisers.

IFRM must also ask the right questions before mapping out education, engineering and enforcement solutions. But it must do so up against some significant barriers that local agencies do not face.

There’s the obvious geographical distance and the limited amount of time that can be spent in country — the all-volunteer group doesn’t have the human or capital resources to spend months or even weeks in those communities. There are also challenges of language and vast cultural differences; what works in North America may be completely ineffective in South America.

You can add to that that IFRM has no power of enforcement as a fire chief or building inspector might. And it is limited in its ability to repeat and reinforce the training and messaging that it delivers.

Those obstacles aside, fire prevention and risk reduction is arguably as, if not more, important in developing countries as it is here in the United States. And we struggle mightily to make those programs work and make them a priority here at home. Imagine the difficulty preaching risk reduction in towns where basic services and needs often go undelivered and unmet.

IFRM’s approach will be to establish a process for evaluating the levels of risk facing the communities we’ll assist — essentially, asking the right questions. The next aim will be to develop a modifiable template for teaching the teachers. Creating a group of local risk-reduction advocates and offering support from afar will be key to our success in this area.

Community risk reduction will be an important tool to help IFRM keep firefighters and civilians safer. As with other thing we’ve done to expand our services, we’ll learn and improve with trial and error. We’ll also improve with the advice of others who have expertise or special insights.

If you are one of those with expertise or special insights you are willing to share to help IFRM, please leave remarks in the comment section below. You can also email me or drop me a message on LinkedIn.

I’ll update you with the lessons we’ve learned once the program is piloted on a future aid trip. Perhaps those lessons will have application to departments here at home.

About the Author

Rick Markley is the former editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the Board of Directors and Director of Communications at IFRM. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at [email protected]. .

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].