Helping firefighters requires diplomacy

More than delivery and training, the IFRM team has to engage in some international diplomacy

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 — OK, I've seen worse, but the driving habits in the Republic of Georgia leave something to be desired. Lane usage is more or less being taken under consideration. Horns warn pedestrians and motorists that approaching vehicles will not stop. And seatbelts? Not a chance.

We were not shocked to learn that vehicle crashes are common. We were surprised to learn that the Mtskheta Fire Department has no extrication equipment, other than hammers and pry bars.

It was also a little surprising that the department's request for aid from the International Fire Relief Mission didn't list extrication tools as a priority. We had extrication tools for them, but when they didn't fit in the 40-foot sea container, they were left behind to be shipped at a later date. This had been communicated to the Georgians before the container left the United States.

Have I mentioned in previous blogs that communication was spotty?

Official meetings
We've had what could be called a day of diplomacy. In the morning, the region's governor and an interpreter came to the fire station to present IFRM with a letter of gratitude for the contributions.

The governor was a tired-looking, slightly disheveled man who mumbled through pleasantries and his thanks. He told us that they need fire trucks.

At lunch we are joined by one of the Georgians who works for Counterpart International. Counterpart is a Washington D.C. based nonprofit organization that provides aid to foreign countries. It helped IFRM ship the container of goods from the States to Georgia.

Without their help, getting the goods here would have been much more difficult. He apologizes for not meeting with us sooner, but there is a 10-nation conference underway in Georgia.

After lunch, a Counterpart contingent that includes the group's CEO Joan Parker, tours the fire station. They are amazed at the state of the apparatus; the fire chief reiterates his request for help securing donated trucks. She's amazed by the level of brotherhood in the fire service; we assure her it transcends borders.

Tension builds
Counterpart officials, fire department leaders and IFRM then sat down for a meeting, where things became a little tense. Our first order of business was to secure an agreement that Counterpart's people in Georgia would routinely check on the equipment and report back to IFRM.

The concern here is that it stays with and is used by Mtskheta firefighters. We also want assurances that the surplus equipment is delivered to other fire departments in the area.

This could easily offend the Georgians, as it implies that they cannot be trusted. But, IFRM President Ron Gruening explains that this level of accountability is necessary for future donations to IFRM. To keep the donations coming, IFRM must show that past donations hit their intended mark.

They agree to perform spot inspections and send status reports and photos.

One of the senior Georgian Counterpart officials had a bone to pick with IFRM. He's upset that the extrication equipment was not in the container. He's also upset that the equipment was listed on the inventory.

We did, he says, deceive the Georgian government. Had customs officials caught this discrepancy, the sea container may not have made it to the firefighters.

Diffusing the situation
It is unclear why the official made this an issue. It is also unclear where the communication breakdown occurred. But, it would have been easy and natural to lash back at the official.

It would have been easy to become defensive about IFRM's compiling the inventory list or choosing to leave the extrication equipment behind. It would have been easy to accuse them of being ungrateful for what they received by demanding more. Pride could have turned this situation ugly fast.

To his credit, Gruening did not give in to pride, defensiveness or haughtiness. He reassured them that plans were in place to deliver the extrication equipment and allowed everyone to save face.

It comes as no surprise that these trips involve a good deal more than delivering equipment and conducting training.

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