It takes a village to raise a fire department

A recent humanitarian-aid trip to build a fire department from scratch shows what a community can accomplish


Imagine if you lived in a community that had no fire department, and never did have one, in fact.

That's difficult to fathom for those of us in the United States or other fully developed countries. Yet, that's exactly the scenario I had a small part in fixing this past week.

I returned home yesterday after a week in Barraterre, a small community on the island of Exuma in the Bahamas. The trip was one of the final components of a two-year project where the International Fire Relief Mission helped Barraterre set up its first-ever fire department.

I've donated my time to IFRM since 2008 and will have a full report on the efforts in Barraterre in the coming days. How that fire department was organized is worth an early look.

Despite having no fire or rescue services, Exuma has both wildland and structural fire threats, as well as a menu of rescue threats from high-angle to vehicle crashes. Several resorts bring in throngs of tourists.

And despite these threats, there were tremendous political and financial obstacles to setting up a fire service on Exuma.

Were this the case in a U.S. town, one can easily imagine a tax levy and a long-term debt to get a fire department up and running. But that wasn't going to happen in Barraterre — they simply don't have the resources.

So they banded together as a community and raised the necessary funds to build a fire station. They did this through fundraisers and by going to local businesses and well-heeled individuals.

They organized a leadership structure without any fire service background. They recruited 25 volunteers with no promise of compensation — three of which are women.

Others gave in whatever way they could. Some provided sweat equity at the fire station. The older women in the community landscaped the fire station, cooked meals for the firefighters during training and volunteered for a community response team (think part rehab, part Red Cross, part CERT).

For IFRM's part, it provided guidance along the way, such as a needs assessment and a fire station design. It also provided enough donated firefighting equipment and one rig to outfit the new department as well as hands-on instruction for the new volunteer firefighters.

Building the fire department infrastructure was one of the conditions the Barraterre community had to meet in order to receive the donated equipment. IFRM is careful to only help those fire departments that are positioned to use the donations as a stepping-off point of a long-term effort to improve fire protection.

While they have a long road to hoe in terms of training and organizing, the new fire department is now open for business and ready to serve its community.

IFRM's involvement aside, it was incredibly refreshing to see how that small community pulled together to create a fire department that can serve its common good for generations to come.

The members of the Barraterre Community Voluntary Fire Service were effusive in their thanks to IFRM for its help. For me, and many of the other team members who were there, it was an honor to be on hand when that hope and dream became a real fire department.

It was a privilege to see people doing the right thing.

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