How to build a fire department from scratch

Starting a fire department from scratch is great when money is no object; when resources are scarce, you improvise


Building a fire department where none exists is a monumental task. That's especially true in areas where the need is well understood, but the means are lacking.

The International Fire Relief Mission assisted the Bahamian government in buildng a fire department from scratch on the island of Exuma in the community of Barratarre. Pushed by private philanthropist Ian Edgar who lives on the island, local officials and business owners spent the past two years in discussion with IFRM and subsequently built a single-bay volunteer station.

The station sits on a concrete slab with wood-frame construction and has enough room for two rigs, turnout storage and a short, 4-foot wide loft for storage. It is freshly painted and landscaped and has a fresh-water cistern behind it to fill the fire truck.

Philanthropist Ian Edgar (center) has thrown financial and political clout at getting a fire department established on Exuma. Below, IFRM volunteers select proper fitting gear for the new firefighters. (Photo: Rick Markley)
Philanthropist Ian Edgar (center) has thrown financial and political clout at getting a fire department established on Exuma. Below, IFRM volunteers select proper fitting gear for the new firefighters. (Photo: Rick Markley)

The Exumas are a collection of more than 360 small islands with Great Exuma and Little Exuma being the largest; several years ago they were connected by bridge. Together they occupy 72 square miles. Barraterre is on the northwestern end of the two.

Equipping firefighters
One of IFRM's roles in building this department was outfitting it with the necessary equipment to fight fire. In this case that included items such as a breathing-air compressor, SCBA bottles and harnesses, full turnout gear, a radio system and a used engine.

All of this was donated by U.S. fire departments and fire service groups including Lion Apparel and Fire-Dex.

While not easy, providing equipment is the least difficult of what it takes to build a fire department from the ground up. The hard part is building the political and community-based infrastructure needed to support a fire service.

One of the components of an IFRM aid mission is dispatching a team to the country receiving aid. When it came to Barraterre, IFRM began examining the community's needs and resources two years before it delivered equipment and dispatched its training team.

IFRM President Ron Gruening and wildland fire expert Robb Chapman devised a plan to build a fire department to combat both structural and wildland fires. Part of that plan and IFRM's basic requirement for helping a country is that IFRM's aid is a first step in a sustained effort to improve the fire service.

Interested parties
During the first day of training two fire officers from Nassau, the country's capital, the local police chief and a local elected official met with IFRM to discuss the next steps. This is key for Barraterre and all of Exuma.

The Bahamian fire service is nationalized and falls under the control of the police; Nassau firefighters are cross-trained police officers. In order for the Barraterre volunteer department to get the resources needed to maintain and grow its capabilities, it will need to be officially recognized by the national fire service.

The two officers spent two days sitting through classroom sessions led by IFRM staff for the new volunteer firefighters. The reason for their attendance was in part to recommend to Nassau officials whether or not to accept Barraterre into the fold.

Other officials were eager to see Barraterre's finished product with an eye to using that method to make other fire departments.

The Nassau fire officers, even before official recognition is conveyed on the department, can begin offering assistance in the form of taking some of the senior volunteers to Nassau for firefighter training at their academy. Nassau can also help with some equipment and maintenance of that equipment.

Initial training
The process may seem like a slam dunk as IFRM has seeded the department with a great deal of equipment and initial training. However, several years ago, an expat living on the island attempted to form a fire department; that effort failed and the fire truck he brought sits in ruin near Exuma's main city Georgetown.  

Each day's training drew nearly 20 of the department's 25 volunteer firefighters, which is pretty good considering these sessions were held during normal working hours and the volunteers are not paid by the department.

Training volunteers with little-to-no prior knowledge of firefighting is a challenge. Several of the new firefighters mistakenly put their helmets on backward when issued their gear.

IFRM volunteers ran the group through both classroom and hands-on training on how to use, including donning and doffing, their PPE and SCBA. The lessons ranged from the complex — how turnout gear is built to protect firefighters — to the mundane — the need to wear socks when responding.

Community support
For the first time, IFRM offered training to the community on establishing a physical and mental rehab unit. This was done through its affiliation with the Emergency Ministries International. EMI sent two representatives who were trained firefighter councilors and paramedics to teach community volunteers how to establish a rehab sector at the fire scene.

They also educated the communities about the dangers of mental illness that comes with being a firefighter, and how they can become certified to aid firefighters following an emotional trauma. This was one of several new affiliations that include wildland fire, CERT and apparatus maintenance expertise. 

The challenges for this fledgling fire department are many. Yet, if support from the national government comes through and if local leaders such as Edgar and the fire chief can keep pressure on those officials and the volunteers' motivation, they are well on their way to having an efficient fire service.

Another encouraging sign is that the Barraterre community raised all of the funds, approximately $40,000, to build the fire station. This level of grassroots support will go a long way to sustainability.

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