Georgian firefighters get their first ever sets of turnout gear
Despite logistical hiccups, fire officers were fully trained on PPE and SCBA use
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 our first day at the fire station. The small, one-story station is divided in two with an apparatus bay on one side and offices, kitchen, and sleeping quarters on the other. The building was partially destroyed by the Russians in 2008. It has since been rebuilt but a pile of concrete rubble behind the station serves as a reminder of the recent past.
The apparatus bay is empty save for two Mitsubishi pickup trucks for rescue work. These are operated by the regional fire service, which will assist with but is not responsible for protecting Mtskheta.
Outside sit the department's only two apparatus. Both are Soviet-era vehicles that probably date back to the early 1960s or late 1950s. One is a converted ARFF truck, the same one we saw driving yesterday. Inside, it is badly worn.
The other truck appears to be a pumper. It has two tubes fastened to its bed pointing up at about 45-degree angles. These, International Fire Relief Mission President Ron Gruening tells me from his experiences in the Ukraine and Moldova, are meant to be used as rocket launchers. The Soviets equipped their fire trucks with these launching tubes in case the vehicles need to be drafted into war service. This accessory appears to offer no fire fighting benefits.
These vehicles were once so ubiquitous that parts were readily available. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been keeping all of the parts for its fleet, so these decades-old vehicles are dying out.
Our Georgian hosts tell us what the fire department really needs is apparatus. IFRM has a working partnership with Operation Florian, a charitable group in the United Kingdom that is similar to IFRM yet older and larger. Gruening tells the Georgians that he will see what assistance Florian can provide.
The plea for trucks will be repeated many times during our stay. There's little mistake what they are trying to communicate here.
When we arrive at the station, the first thing Gruening and IFRM's operations man, Barry Mossbarger, want is a look into the shipping container, which is sitting outside near the rear of the fire station. When the doors are opened, both men groan.
Before leaving Minnesota, the two had meticulously packed each box from bottom up thusly: first air tanks, then air packs that matched the tanks, then sized and matched bunker coats and pants and finally helmets and masks. This packing system allows the receiving fire department to immediately outfit an entire crew without sorting the equipment. That is, so long as the packed boxes remain in tact.
When IFRM prepares these shipments, the receiving fire departments are given explicit instructions on how and why the boxes were packed. There should be no surprises. And, in fact, there's not.
Inside the sea container, all of the boxes have been unpacked and the items shoved back randomly in the boxes, or just strewn on the floor. This, however disappointing, was not a surprise. The first clue was that this happens in every country.
It doesn't matter how insistent Gruening is or how sincere the promise from those receiving the goods, they are always ransacked. "They just can't resist it," he says.
The second clue came as we were going over discrepancies from IFRM's shipping inventory list and the inventory list made by the Mtskheta Fire Department. They said that several SCBA brackets were not there. They also said that the extrication tools were missing, which they were.
When sea container was packed the extrication tools would not fit. They will be sent separately with the State Department's next shipment of other goods to Georgia. The SCBA brackets are most likely there. The Georgians did not seem to understand the difference in brands (as they were listed on the inventory); the truth will not be known until we take everything out of the sea container and reconstruct, or rematch, the gear.
And that earlier-mentioned bit about the container being filled to the max, it wasn't that way when we opened it.
There was easily 25 percent of the container empty. Gruening questioned the department's commanders. Well, some of the men had gotten into the turnout gear and took it home for laundering.
And the hoses? They wouldn't fit the Georgian couplings, so they were being retrofitted. In one of the offices, stretchers and a stair-chair have found a new home. At this point it is hard to say what else has been removed or where it may be.
The officers tell us that the goods had to be moved from the container they were shipped in to the one at the fire department. With no forklift, the unloading had to be done by hand and the boxes were too heavy for the men to lift, hence the unpacking and repacking.
Sorting through the equipment will have to wait.
The first order of business was to round up all of the officers, about six, and give them in-depth training on the equipment. The officers will also go through the hands-on training with the rest of the firefighters. Singling the officers out will better prepare them to oversee the training once IFRM is gone.
Train the trainers
Working through interpreters, we show the officers how and why the donated goods were packed. Once the gear is resorted, they will have a better understanding of why it was paired off the way it was. The officers get a full lesson on PPE, including how it is worn and its level of protection.
And, bringing lessons from a previous IFRM trip to Moldova, the officers were instructed to never, for any reason other than inspection or cleaning, remove the thermal layers from the coats. Some Moldovans mistakenly believed the thermal linings were only to keep them warm, and removed them during summer months.
We then run through lessons on SCBA, which it seems they've never before used. The department has access to a compressor and filled one of the bottles.
After the demonstrations, one of the officers donned the pack and mask and went on air. This proved a great time to explain the PASS features and talk about air management.
After lunch, we asked to see a set of turnouts the firefighters currently wear — none could be produced other than an old ARFF aluminum suit.
The donated goods will solve that problem. And we're hopeful that after our first full day of training, the officers have picked up the knowledge they will need to manage the gear.