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Bloomington Fire Department returns from training trip to Sierra Leone


Bloomington Fire Department Capt. Max Litwin discusses tactics at the Sierra Leone National Fire Force training facility. Four firefighters from BFD spent eight days in Sierra Leone the first week of February working with local officials, training and teaching fire safety and prevention. Courtesy Photo

Four firefighters from the Bloomington Fire Department spent eight days in Sierra Leone the first week of February training, teaching fire safety and prevention and working with local officials.  

BFD serves about 85,000 people with about a $14 million budget. Sierra Leone National Fire Force in Sierra Leone serves about 2 million people with no funding.

Fire Chief Jason Moore said this project started when Eastina Taylor, a past IU Mandela Washington Fellow from Sierra Leone, told Moore about losing her family in a fire and urged him to help improve her country’s fire program. 

“Most of us in fire service, when someone asks for help, we don’t say no,” Moore said. “We just say we’ll figure out how to do it.” 

The Sierra Leone fire force uses donated trucks and gear, some of which are outdated equipment from other countries, Moore said. Many firefighters wear chemistry goggles instead of face shields. Rags or sponges over their mouths are their only protection from the smoke. Many don’t have gloves. 

BFD Fire Prevention Officer Tom Figolah packed one of his suitcases with gloves, flashlights and hoods to give to the fire force. They didn’t want to donate other gear until they assessed what the force needed.

By receiving a grant from the IREX organization, a grant from the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County and raising about $2,000 in private donations from GoFundMe and a benefit dinner, they figured out how. 

Moore and Litwin, recipients of the Reciprocal Exchange grant, received about $9,700 from U.S. State Department-funded program. Ultimately, four firefighters were able to go with the help of other funds.

IREX doubled the original grant because they liked the project, giving the department about $9,700 so four firefighters were able to go rather than the originally planned two. 

“That exponentially increased what we could accomplish there, having multiple teams of people being able to function at the same time,” said Litwin. 

The Sierra Leone fire force has to leave the scene of a fire, sometimes for 30 minutes, to refill its water when it runs out. 

The citizens do not understand this, Moore said. They see the firefighters not doing their jobs. 

“You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel when you’re on a fire scene there because people throw rocks at you because they’re mad you didn’t save their house, or you’re not saving their family,” Moore said. 

The Bloomington team made a list of about 25 tasks it wanted to accomplish while there, with the realistic hope of getting one or two done. Some of the tasks included sharing practices to mitigate emergencies and fire prevention education. Moore said they accomplished more than 30. 

They had only about three months to plan the trip. 

There were many points when the trip seemed doomed. Figolah was unable to find his medical records. Litwin got sick and had to get his immunizations at the last minute. 

Firefighter Jonathan Young had a vacation the week before, giving him about three days between the two trips. 

When the group arrived to the Indianapolis airport, its flight was canceled.

After 32 hours of flying, driving and riding a boat into the country, the group finally made it.

When they arrived, they saw a place ravaged by a past civil war, Ebola outbreak and deadly mudslides. 

The Bloomington firefighters brought prevention education pamphlets and flash drives with training lessons and videos on them. Moore worked with the Sierra Leone fire force chief to set up a database log. 

With a computerized shared database, Moore said he can help the force apply for grants and funding. The force only had paper logs before.  

“It was more than just developing professional relationships,” Litwin said. “I feel I made true friends over there, and it was extremely rewarding.” 

BFD hopes to bring two Sierra Leonean firefighters to Bloomington to train.

“The immediate result was impressive I think, but the future of what we can accomplish with them moving forward is pretty exciting,” Litwin said.

This story has been updated to reflect rebranding by IREX.

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