How to donate retired fire gear and equipment
Understanding the types of equipment that are acceptable to donate and who to contact to start the process
The fire service is a global community. Go to a fire station anywhere in the world and identify yourself as a firefighter and you’ll likely be welcomed like a long-lost brother or sister who’s returned home. Firefighters, both active and retired, have been taking such visits to other counties to a higher level.
There are several organizations that help under-resourced fire departments in poor and developing countries by getting them firefighting gear and equipment that’s reached the end of its service lifecycle here in the U.S., but still has value for firefighters who may be using even older gear and equipment – or may not have equipment at all.
NFPA standards for fire apparatus and gear specify service lifecycles. For example, NFPA Standard 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting specifies that structural firefighting ensemble components must be retired from service 10 years after the date of manufacture. This includes helmets, gloves, coats, pants, hoods and boots, even if items were never used and simply left in storage or reserve. These dates are not just a guide; industry experts publish them in the NFPA after exhaustive research, scientific study and deliberation.
Likewise, NFPA 1852: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) specifies the lifecycle for SCBA cylinders. Older steel and aluminum cylinders have variable service lifespans that are subject to regular hydrostatic testing results. Many cylinders in use today are composite, and those composite cylinders have a maximum operational lifecycle of 15 years, regardless of their hydrostatic performance.
Getting gear to new homes
Most fire departments are likely not replacing apparatus or gear or other equipment until it is no longer in serviceable condition, or must be retired according to an applicable NFPA standard. So, what are the options available for fire departments for disposing of gear and equipment that’s no longer serviceable?
“I’d have to say using any life safety equipment in a resold environment carries a large liability for the seller and buyer,” said Chief Robert Mitchell of the Seminole County (Florida) Fire and Rescue Department. “Only the original owner/user knows what that equipment has really been exposed to, and I’m not sure an effective enough release could or should be able to be written to waive that liability.”
Paul Calderwood – a disaster recovery specialist at the Tennessee Department of Revenue and former fire marshal in Everett, Massachusetts – add that there are several organizations that are looking to put gear in the hands of U.S. firefighters who can still use it.
Calderwood volunteers with one of those organizations, One World for Life, which attempts to get “experienced” fire equipment and gear – that is still in good condition and within its lifecycle – into the hands of U.S. fire departments that don’t have the financial resources to purchase the same gear or equipment new. “But once it hits that “magic date” [NFPA retirement date], then our next plan is to send it to our brother and sister firefighters in countries where the NFPA standards don’t apply,” Calderwood said.
The morality and ethics of donating equipment
Fire department leaders can find it both frustrating and expensive to replace equipment that appears to be OK because a NFPA standard has specified a lifecycle for that equipment. Though a locality may not have formally adopted NFPA standards for use by its fire department, those NFPA standards are consensus standards that have helped define what is acceptable across the fire service in the U.S.
Bear in mind that those NFPA standards have come about – for the most part – because of identified operational or safety deficiencies in the fire service. Firefighter safety in the U.S. has made great strides forward because of the NFPA standards writing process.
In other countries, there may or may not be standards like those promulgated by NFPA. Because our fellow firefighters in foreign countries do not have the same protections in place, it is incumbent upon organizations such as One World for Life to ensure that the gear and equipment delivered to them is still able to do the job.
Fire departments should donate responsibly and never send damaged or incomplete equipment. They should ensure that all donated items are within their NFPA-specified service life, in serviceable condition, and retested or recertified by the manufacturer or certified third-party testing organization. It may cost a little money, but it makes the donation more beneficial and morally correct.
The equipment and gear that fire departments in the U.S. provide to their firefighters enables them to do their job more safely, effectively and efficiently. If you wouldn't or shouldn't use it, don't expect someone else to in another country to use it.
Charitable fire service organizations
The International Fire Relief Mission (IFRM) has been providing needed firefighting gear and equipment to fire departments in developing countries for over 10 years.
IFRM collects donated firefighting and EMS equipment from U.S. departments 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, its 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.
Firefighters Without Borders (FWB) is a Canadian organization dedicated to providing equipment, training and support for fire service agencies in need. FWB focuses on providing sustainable support through strategic planning, on-site training of emergency services providers, members of the community, school children and families and ongoing support.
FWB looks beyond the immediate need, considering long-term, multi-staged projects if necessary, to ensure long-term safety in a community. Fire prevention and public education programs are key components of FWB’s long-term sustainability approach.
Firefighters Crossing Borders (FFCB) is a non-profit organization founded by firefighters for firefighters based in the U.S. Its members are active and retired firefighters, medical personnel, and skilled citizens from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, working to assist firefighters and other emergency response agencies in Mexico.
FFCB has developed working relationships in the Mexican states of Baja, Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco to bring advanced training, equipment and vehicles to fire departments in those states. FFCB is expanding upon that base mission through its association with other groups that are working around the world in places like Haiti, Japan, South America and Europe.
The Kamloops Firefighters Charitable Society (KFFCS) is a registered Canadian charity founded in 2009 that’s based in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. KFFCS’s major initiative is Operation Nicaragua, and since 2009, KFFCS volunteers have made 24 mission trips to Nicaragua, bringing fire apparatus, equipment, training and support of that country.
"Nicaragua is the second poorest country in basically the Northern Hemisphere behind Haiti, so we definitely saw a need," said Operation Nicaragua Director David Sakaki in an interview with CJFC in Kamloops.