Firefighters from Europe providing support in Kenya and Tanzania
Oliver Elsner is the media spokesperson for the European Support Team (official name: European Fire & Rescue Support Association). The fifty-year-old lives in the town of Pulheim, near Cologne, Germany, and has been in active service as a firefighter with the Düsseldorf Fire Service since 1998. He is also a guest lecturer at the Düsseldorf Fire Academy. We talked to him about the projects in Kenya and Tanzania.26 Jun. 2019
What do people in Kenya do if there’s a fire? Who do they call?
It depends on the region, but generally speaking, the populace has to fend for itself. Most of the country’s 47 counties do have a fire department, but they are often very poorly equipped and trained. Also, outside of the big cities there is no reticulated firefighting water supply.
Another problem is the type and condition of the roads in the poorer residential neighborhoods. What’s more, there is no standardized nationwide emergency phone number, and no emergency call control and dispatch centers. You may be able to call the local fire brigade on a standard landline number, which in most cases will be 10 digits long. In some large urban centers you can use the British 999 emergency number, or the international 112 number.
How long until the fire engines get there?
That always depends on local factors, on the condition of the fire appliances and on the road infrastructure and what sort of weather damage it may have sustained. Also, the distances involved are often quite large. The response times are nothing like what we have here in Europe, so the time window can be anything from 30 minutes to well over an hour.
And how well is the response team typically equipped?
In most cases the response units have only basic equipment. Availability of proper protective clothing is not a given, and only very few firefighters have breathing apparatus. Specialized equipment is often non-existent, and the training lacks standardization and is very patchy.
Is the situation in Tanzania similar?
Yes, the situation is similar, and in some cases it is even worse in terms of equipment and size of the area and population served. For example, in the northern region, where our European Support Team is operating, there are currently eight fire personnel in charge of 5,000 square kilometers and the safety of 380,000 people – which is an absolute impossibility.
Why is the European Support Team active in these two countries?
The European Support Team is there because its founder and first chairman, Christian Hagedorn, has family ties with Kenya and was able to witness local conditions first hand. That’s what motivated him to establish the EST. It all started in 2015 with the Baringo County project in Kenya. After that, we received a steady flow of inquires asking whether we would be interested in further projects. Our current project in Tanzania has been up and running since 2018, and we already have firm plans for two new projects in Kenya for the start of 2020.
How did you personally first become involved with the EST?
I was looking for an opportunity to give something back – to bring my expertise to bear somewhere where it is sorely needed outside of my normal service routine. And because my wife of 20 years is Kenyan and I have first-hand knowledge of the fire service situation there, I started searching online for opportunities in that country. So for me, getting involved with the EST was the obvious choice.
What exactly do you do in these two African countries?
Within the scope of clearly defined projects we help to source firefighting equipment from Germany. Most of the equipment is used, but some is new. Later, once all the planning work has been done by the relevant project managers, front-line firefighters fly – usually in twos – to Africa in order to provide education and training for local fire departments. The whole thing is based on the basic training given to volunteer firefighters here in Germany.
How long has your organization been operating, and how many members does it currently have?
The EST is a nonprofit organization that was founded in Osnabrück in 2017 with the object of providing development support to fire departments in Africa. It has been headquartered in Freren – that’s a municipality in the Emsland district in northwest Germany – since 2018. We currently have over 20 active and eight associate members.
How many fire departments have you helped since the EST first started?
So far we’ve provided support to the fire department of Baringo County, Kenya, and to the unit in Kayanga, in northern Tanzania. As from the start of 2020 we will be running two further projects, In one, we will be providing support and professional development for the fire units of Kilifi County, Kenya, and in the other we’ll be helping the rangers working at a nature reserve in western Kenya.
Which project means the most to you personally?
Every project is special in its own way, but I am very happy with how things are going in Tanzania at the moment.
How does the EST make contact with fire departments in Africa?
Since we started we have built a good network via social media. Then of course there’s word of mouth. Also, the EST is not the only organization of its kind in Kenya – there’s also an American and a Polish NGO there doing similar work. And the Hamburg Fire Department has been operating in Tanzania for the past 25 years owing to a sister city arrangement.
What sort of training do you provide to local fire departments?
Basic training in the theory and practice of firefighting, vehicle rescue and extrication, and first aid.
And for your part, what have you learned from the firefighters you’ve supported in Kenya and Tanzania?
I’ve been inspired by the amazing optimism that enables them to help their fellow man despite having very little in the way of decent equipment, and by their strong desire to learn new things. There is a shift in attitudes at play in the general population, in the sense that being a fireman is something that many people aspire to and feel proud of.
It’s not just experience and expertise that the EST invests in Africa; you also provide vehicles and equipment. Where do you get these from?
Getting vehicles is a major challenge. That’s because in Germany, retired fire engines are publicly auctioned, and pretty much anyone can buy them for use as campervans, catering trucks and the like. So organizations like the EST have no option but to buy at auction using donated funds.
And the problem there is that raising funds is really, really difficult and requires a lot of hard work and creative thinking. Equipment and protective clothing, on the other hand, are much easier to come by. We obtain these items mainly from German fire department surplus, but also from big-name manufacturers in the fire industry.
You will be running an EST showcase at INTERSCHUTZ 2020. What are you hoping to achieve, and whom are you hoping to reach?
We would like to raise awareness of our young organization in fire industry circles in Germany and beyond. We’re also hoping to recruit fire professionals as active or associate members of our organization. We’re also looking for people with specialist training who are keen to make a difference.
Apart from that, we are hoping to make contact with manufacturers so that we can include them in our network, convince them of the importance of our specialist development assistance work and, ideally, recruit them as sponsors.
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