By Wynfred Russell
Back in April, a crowd of onlookers gathered at the edge of the wreckage, pointing and gawking at the smoldering building as rescue workers with little more than their bare hands frantically searched for survivors in the burning Johansen Building, a once bustling factory near the Waterside commercial district in Monrovia.
For more than 24 hours as poorly equipped firefighters from several jurisdictions – National Port Authority, United Nations, and the National Petroleum Corporation – battled the blaze, the building collapsed under the intense inferno, taking with it six lives, including two firefighters of the National Fire Service.
Hundreds of people surrounded the site daily, some for a chance to loot, others to watch the huge rescue operation, as hopes faded that more victims would be found alive.
With national outrage boiling over, vice president Joseph Boakai visited the scene to pledge his support for the rescue operation and to offer sympathy to members of the fire service, a sector seen by many people as being neglected by the government. Thousands of miles away, the news of firefighters getting trapped and killed while performing their duties, weighed heavily on Ken Prillaman, founder of the faith-led Fire Rescue Alliance and fire chief of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, home to nearly 10,000 Liberian immigrants.
Chief Prillaman jumped into action, rallying members of his non-profit fire organization to help train and supply Liberia firefighters. He found a willing partner in vice president Boakai who embraced the group and its efforts. This culminated in a group of firefighters from the across the United States launching a mission trip to Liberia to help rebuild the country’s fire service, under the auspices of the Alliance and the government of Liberia. An advance team of nine arrived in the country Nov. 3 and will be in Liberia for three weeks teaching fire rescue classes, fire preparedness, medical emergency response, and assessing the needs for future growth while coordinating the donation of fire gear, books, donated equipment, and vehicles. The group will be followed by three waves of industry leaders who will be in the West African nation until November 25.
“The need in Liberia is dire,” said Deputy Chief John Butler, who is Liberian by birth and is returning with the organization for the second year. “The firefighters in Liberia have the heart and passion to serve but do not have the necessary tools. Many are still fighting fire in street clothes and there is only a few fire engines in the entire country.”
The Alliance will offer training to more than 250 Liberian firefighters and command staff provided by some of the best instructors and fire service leaders in the U.S. The organization has also delivered a state-of-the-art fire engine and an ambulance.
“This will be our third deployment to Liberia and we are committed to making a difference,” said Mr. Prillaman. “This project will better equip the firefighters in Liberia so that they, in turn, can better protect property and save lives.”
Since their arrival in the country, the American fire professionals have successfully unpacked a 40-foot storage container with equipment, issued nearly 100 sets of personal protective gear, and offered many firefighting training classes.
Picture: Ambulance and supplies donated by North Memorial Hospital in Minnesota for the Liberia National Fire Service and delivered by the U.S.-based Fire Rescue Alliance.