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Iraqi Firefighters Face the Heat

Editor's note: Towards the end of last year, George Blackmore, assistant chief of Austin Fire Department, and two police chiefs from the city visited Baghdad to meet Iraqi emergency personnel and learn about the challenges they face. In part one of a two-part FireRescue1 feature on the role U.S. fire personnel are playing in Iraq, George Blackmore recalls his visit.

By George Blackmore

George Blackmore delivers a speech to Iraqi firefighters.

The Baghdad Fire Service is akin to American firefighting of the 1940s through 1960s.

It is doubtful they have documented standard operating guidelines or procedures and, in addition, their training is very minimal and from inadequate third party sources. Until recently, their equipment was very dated.

The water distribution system in Baghdad was destroyed in the war, and there are no fire hydrants, though it was unclear as to how adequate the water distribution system was prior to the war.

Firefighters and firefighting are managed under the auspices of the national Iraqi Civil Defense Ministry, while the police are organized under a different national ministry.

The actual structure of the Baghdad Fire Department can be best described as two distinct fire departments separated by the Tigris River running through downtown Baghdad.

Two sectors
The river divides the city into east and west sectors with a fire department on each side. Each department has a fire chief and command structure difficult to ascertain exactly, but with one to several fire companies per fire station, with an officer in charge of a company and a higher officer in charge of a multi-company station.

The two fire departments serve a city roughly the geographic size of Austin, with a population of 6-7 million people. Each department has approximately 12-15 fire stations

Call taking and dispatch was a little more difficult to understand. Calls go in through emergency phone numbers, separate for fire and police, to a centralized city control center. However, calls may also come in directly to the fire stations or via walk-in notification.

George Blackmore (in black uniform) in the International Zone in Baghdad.

The Baghdad Fire Department has to rely on tanker trucks and foam application for fire suppression efforts. They have recently received a huge influx of modern firefighting equipment, such as apparatus and tools, but they do not have the training to properly utilize those capabilities.

They have modern apparatus, with 1,000-plus gallon water tanks, compressed air foam systems (CAFS), and hydraulic rescue tools.

However, the Baghdad firefighters have not received training on the equipment and there is no preventive maintenance or repair program in place.

We were given additional insight into Iraqi culture by a U.S. Army official, who explained that Iraqi society has been so poor that material things are valued for display more than function; the firefighters are more apt to save and showcase their equipment than to actually put it into use.

Since the society has been so poverty-stricken, the firefighters are reluctant to utilize the newer equipment lest it become damaged and unable to be replaced.

The example relayed was the practice of only keeping a small amount of hose on an apparatus and utilizing very short hose lays in order to save their stock of hose back at the fire station. The same can be said about SCBA, bunker gear, and other equipment. They expose themselves to greater risk in order to maintain their equipment as status symbols.

Difficult conditions
The Baghdad firefighters spent considerable time explaining the difficult conditions under which they work. By far the greatest obstacle to more effective fire service delivery is the lack of coordination and cooperation between the Baghdad Fire Department and the Baghdad and Iraqi police forces.

It seemed apparent that the police forces in Iraq and Baghdad are fragmented, dysfunctional, and in some cases corrupt. The structure of law enforcement is organized around the Iraqi Army (the most trusted of the three to four major law enforcement entities), the Iraqi National Police, Baghdad Police, and local militias (the most feared and unpredictable semi-official entity encountered).

The Baghdad firefighters described incidents of police stopping fire apparatus on their way to an emergency at checkpoints and performing complete inspections. It includes firefighters having to lay spread-eagled on the pavement while their vehicle is searched.

Often, police will not accompany firefighters to an emergency because of their fear of insurgents and attack. Generally, firefighters are respected by the citizens but are more frequently becoming legitimate targets of the insurgent terrorists.

The tactic of secondary devices targeting first responders is becoming a popular method of attack. The firefighters complained of a lack of security and blame the dysfunctional police services.

Baghdad firefighters stand with the delegation from Austin.
Operational tactics also place firefighters at greater risk because of civilian expectations. Firefighters must take extraordinary risks if human life is at stake or possibly face the wrath and retribution of an angry mob; if they do not act, the group may turn violent.

Medical service is provided by private ambulances that operate out of hospitals. Firefighters, although trained in basic first aid, do not really administer any emergency medical services. The predominant concept for medical emergencies in Baghdad is the "scoop and go" with little or no treatment given in the field.

It was unclear how the private ambulances coordinate with the fire department or how they are dispatched. However, it is the fire department that responds to the murders and sectarian killings in Baghdad, picking up bodies and body parts.

Multiple murders
One firefighter described a typical shift as responding to four to six incidents in a shift, with the station itself responding to about 15 murders a week.

There is an apparent tremendous lack of training opportunities for the Iraqi fire service. Some firefighter recruits receive only a three-week training course by third-party contractors or countries utilizing inadequate or sub-standard curriculum.

The mission to Baghdad was successful from the standpoint of gaining valuable insight into the methods of essential services delivery practices utilized by the Baghdad government.

However, one of things that stood out for me was the truly outstanding work the U.S. military is doing, and the caliber and character of the young men and women serving in Iraq was impressive.

There are tremendous challenges to re-establishing critical services, and ensuring democracy takes root and thrives in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

But let there be no doubt: Baghdad is a violent war zone, and improving the delivery of basic municipal services is extremely challenging.

In addition, improving the police and fire services is also hampered by centuries of ethnic, tribal, and religious differences that have shaped the face and culture of modern-day Baghdad.

George Blackmore is a 27-year member of the Austin Fire Department in Austin. He also serves as the assistant chief of operations and special operations/homeland security. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Chief Blackmore also served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1982-1986 and the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 1986-1996. Over the last three years, the City of Austin has worked with the U.S Army to provide training and insight on city functions, infrastructure and services to military officers to help the overall stabilization effort in Iraq.

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