CANAL FULTON — The National Fire Protection Association recommends firefighters replace their lifesaving gear every 10 years.
In Guatemala, firefighters battling lava and ash after Volcán de Fuego erupted in June wore turnout gear two to three times older than the recommended lifespan. Many of the suits were hand-me-downs from fire departments across the United States.
When Lance Wilcox visited Guatemala in June with Mission Mark 10:45, a Bethlehem Township-based nonprofit, he saw the extreme poverty and need for donations of all types of equipment, from trucks to hand tools to medical supplies.
“The drugs they use for EMS are expired, but it’s the best they’ve got,” the Canton Township resident said. “We’re so blessed with opportunity here in the States in comparison to what they get over there.”
Upon his return home, Wilcox began talking with local fire departments to collect gear and equipment to ship to Guatemala. The Canal Fulton Fire Department recently agreed to donate excess equipment, including boots, gloves, self-contained breathing apparatus and turnout gear.
Lawrence Township trustees will discuss its Township Fire Department donating equipment to Guatemala during Monday’s meeting.
Wilcox will return to Guatemala in March with Mission Mark 10:45.
“They need just about everything,” Wilcox said. “There’s a lot of compassion in this county for firefighters.”
Poverty affects departments
Tiffany Boughman, president of Mission Mark 10:45, visited four or five fire departments in Guatemala with Wilcox during their last trip to the Central American country. She and her husband began the missionary organization after their first trip to Guatemala in 2014.
The contrast in living conditions is astounding, she said. From village houses to fire departments, all are plagued by extreme poverty.
“It really tugs at your heart when you realize how well off you have it here,” Boughman said. “You see how people live there, and you feel like the richest person on earth. It’s hard to see sometimes. The poverty level in Guatemala is mind-boggling.”
Many nonprofits and individuals like Mission Mark 10:45 are working together to provide relief and aid to Guatemalan communities.
Diego Ibarguen, owner of FCA, an industrial fire consulting company located in Guatemala City, connected with Wilcox during his trip to Guatemala.
Seven years ago, Ibarguen and his wife established the company, which uses its sales to donate fire equipment to Guatemalan fire departments.
In Guatemala, Ibarguen said there are three types of fire departments: volunteer, rural and municipal. Oftentimes coverage overlaps. However, because of a lack of equipment, usually only one fire department has the means to respond at a time.
If an area has three fire departments, for example, maybe one department doesn’t have an ambulance and another has no gas for their vehicles — leaving one able to respond, Ibarguen explained.
“The victim has better odds of getting assistance with three fire departments (serving the same area),” Ibarguen said. “It works out sometimes for the best because if one doesn’t go out, another does.”
Lending a helping hand
Lawrence Township Assistant Chief Dan Podlogar serves as the assistant team manager for the Stark County Hazardous Materials Team, and Wilcox also works in the hazardous materials industry.
During an October conference, Podlogar learned of Wilcox’s effort and decided to spearhead the initiative at the Canal Fulton and Lawrence Township fire departments to find equipment eligible to be donated.
“We’ve kind of been blessed here to obtain a lot of grants in the recent past, which leaves us with a lot of equipment that (becomes) obsolete and doesn’t have a whole lot of value,” Podlogar said.
Capt. Shawn Yerian, of the Canal Fulton Fire Department, said the equipment being donated is excess, out-of-date equipment the department no longer uses. All donated gear has since been replaced with updated equipment purchased through grants.
The donation was approved by the Canal Fulton City Council during the Nov. 20 meeting.
If the equipment was not donated, Yerian said, it would likely be sold online for next to nothing because of its age. Some of the masks being donated are 15 years old.
“I would hate to see it getting scrapped somewhere or ending up on a shelf,” Yerian said. “They have nothing. This is like Christmas to them. It can actually be used.”
Federal and state grant opportunities are not available in Guatemala for fire departments, Ibarguen said. A Guatemalan fire department does not have the financial backing to purchase a new firetruck.
Some of the equipment being donated has already cycled through multiple departments, Ibarguen said.
Turnout gear well past its lifespan may not be providing adequate protection for firefighters and serves simply as a “placebo effect to put on the jacket and think it will protect you,” he said.
“That’s way, way out of our league here,” Ibarguen said. “Just the cost of one truck here is the whole budget for the fire departments in our country.”
When the volcano erupted during the summer, Melvyn Mejia, 46, of Antigua, Guatemala, said his department was not prepared for the turmoil and destruction it caused.
They wore leather gloves that began to melt due to the heat of the volcanic ash and lava. When Wilcox visited, however, Mejia recalled his compassion and willingness to listen as he and his co-firefighters discussed issues they were having due to lack of equipment.
“Our fire station is a poor station,” Mejia said. “We need to ask somebody in the United States in order to get (gear). That moment, it was very precious to know that somebody wants to help us.”
Reach Samantha at 330-775-1133 or Samantha.Ickes@IndeOnline.com. On Twitter: @sickesINDE