Firefighters, medics face remote-response issues

Rickety, ill-suited rigs must traverse unforgiving terrain to provide fire and medical services


Editor's note: The International Fire Relief Mission is a nonprofit organization that collects donated fire and EMS equipment and delivers it to needy firefighters around the world. Rick Markley volunteers his time to IFRM. He accompanied the group on its 2010 trip to Republic of Georgia and submitted this series of blogs about that effort.

MTSKHETA, Republic of Georgia — It is an off day for fire training in Mtskheta, leaving the International Fire Relief Mission team tourists for a day.

We have an interpreter and a non-English-speaking firefighter who drives us around in the department's Ford Taurus station wagon. It has over 300,000 miles, whines when it moves and the steering wheel must be cocked a quarter turn to keep heading straight.

The car has seen better days.

Rough terrain and old vehicles make response a challenge (Photo: Rick Markley)
Rough terrain and old vehicles make response a challenge (Photo: Rick Markley)

Communal trash and recycling bins are common in this part of the world, rather than the curbside trash collection most Americans are used to. The dumpster across the street from our lunch restaurant is pumping black smoke when we arrive. During lunch, we watch the smoke turn to white and flames come out the open top.

In the United States, the fire department would have been called at the first sign of smoke. They'd have arrived, pulled a handline and knocked it down with the water onboard the rig. Chances are, they'd have been wearing full PPE and SCBA, knowing the hidden dangers dumpsters can hold.

Here, it just burned. In fact, one old woman taking out her trash did not think twice about the fire and simply tossed her bags in. By the time lunch was over, so was the dumpster fire.

Upward bound
As tourists, we'll visit two ancient Orthodox churches. The second church is only 12 kilometers from our restaurant. However, it is up a winding mountain pass about half of which is paved only with golf-ball-size river rock.

It is a slow, bouncy ride up as our driver picks his way around small boulders and avoids trenches cut away by rainwater. The Ford labors and groans up the road.

From the parking lot, a steep asphalt footpath leads up to the church and monastery. This is a place where centuries ago, as many as 5,000 monks lived in the caves that dot the face of the overlooking hill.

There's a commotion a short way up the path from entrance. A young woman is lying on the ground with abrasions to her forehead and nose. It appears she fell. She's convulsing. IFRM President Ron Gruening reaches group, has a look at the girl and says there's not much to be done other than give her time to come out of it.

She's sustained a deep head injury, but has people to look after her; we continue our tour of the monastery and church.

Hillside fires
One of the monks is a friend of our interpreter. He shows us the icons, one of which is the monk who founded the church and monastery.

The picture shows him with a wolf at his side and in one upturned palm burns a small fire. The monk tells us that the wolf led the ancient monk to food and that he could hold fire without being burned.

It is my hope that the Mtskheta firefighters, now having PPE, will not think themselves invincible. We've explained that the equipment has limitations, that they cannot simply hold fire in their hands without being burned.

The monk also shows us a patch of the hillside forest that caught fire this past summer. The department we outfitted responded in the ARFF truck, hauled a line at least a quarter mile up hill and knocked down the fire on the steep, unstable terrain.

It is terrain that a young civilian on a paved path lost her balance. We were amazed that vehicle made it up the rock-strewn road and that they had enough hose to reach the fire. The monk said that they've also relied on the fire department to deliver drinking water (again, from the apparatus) during times of low rain.

Cautious journey
If the Mtskheta Fire Department gets its wish and receives donated apparatus, those vehicles will have to have enough ground clearance to traverse roads like the one leading to this monastery.

On our way back, they are loading the young woman into an ambulance. Perhaps an hour has elapsed since she fell. The Mtskheta Fire Department does not handle ambulance calls. Our driver—an uncomplaining, off-duty firefighter—phoned for the ambulance.

This ambulance is considerably more dilapidated than what we saw on the road when we first arrived. It resembles an old van and has a badly worn right rear tire. My guess is that that is the only wheel receiving power from the engine — four-wheel drive would have been a bonus on this road.

We drive behind the ambulance most of the way down the hill. One of its rear doors looks to be only partially closed. The driver pulls over once to inspect something on the ambulance. We stop to help if needed. The driver looks under the passenger side, gets back, restarts it and continues his slow trek down the hill.

We had learned that the young woman was coherent and speaking before being loaded into the ambulance and that they were taking her to the hospital as a precaution.

During the day of tourism, the unplanned sights we saw turned out to be far more compelling than those on the itinerary.

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