FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE —
Fighting fires is always a challenge and often carries with it the risk of injury or death. In Sierra Leone, the challenges are even greater because of a lack of equipment and, often, water.
Abulai Ibrahim Koroma suffered a head injury while fighting a fire over the Christmas holiday. He said he ended up paying for some of his treatment, because Sierra Leone firefighters have minimal insurance coverage.
“The medication they give us is just first aid treatment," he said. "It doesn’t help us recover our health.”
His story is typical among members of Sierra Leone's firefighting corps. Firefighters also lack basic gear such as breathing equipment, and there are limited numbers of helmets and pairs of boots.
Alhaji Saccoh, an American firefighter originally from Sierra Leone, visited a fire station in his homeland last month, and he donated more than $50,000 worth of gear, including helmets and coats. He said more was needed to help his fellow firefighters.
"It’s passion," Saccoh said. "I have to do something. … I want to give back to home.”
The capital, Freetown, has only two operating fire hydrants, and neither is near the fire station, said Sylvester M’taluva, deputy fire chief. He said it can take more than 30 minutes to get to a hydrant in heavy traffic.
M'taluva also said that when a crew gets to a hydrant, there's another concern: "Normally, not all the hydrants have water.”
The entire country has struggled with a water shortage for decades. The Guma Dam, the main source of water in Freetown, was built decades ago when the city had a population of only a few thousand people. Today, the city has a population of 1.2 million, and demand has far outstripped the water supply.
The government said it has been trying to address the issues firefighters are facing. Joseph Bandabla Dauda, Sierra Leone's minister of internal affairs, said five new firetrucks will be coming soon from China. Others were recently donated from Germany.
Dauda said firefighters are now being asked to let the water companies know when there is a fire. "When they are promptly informed about an area where fire incidents have occurred, then they can divert water supply to that area and make the hydrant there operational,” he said.
The hydrant would be closed again once the fire is out.
Dauda said water companies also have large, mobile water tanks that they can bring to fires until a better solution is found.
As for insurance for firefighters, Dauda admitted that improvement was needed but said the government had not received any complaints about firefighters having to pay their own medical bills after recent fires and injuries.