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baltimoresun.com

Howard firefighters embark on training mission in Liberia

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

8:15 AM EST, November 7, 2013

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Before his plane touched down in Liberia last weekend, it had been 20 months since John Butler was last in his native country.

And, although the layoff is drastically shorter than the 32-year drought the Ellicott City resident broke in March of 2012, the importance of his current trip far exceeds his last.

"When you visit a place that has been at war, promises from foreigners fall on deaf ears," said Butler, 46, who is the deputy fire/EMS chief at Howard County Department Fire and Rescue Services.

"I can't wait to show them we are going to live up to ours," he said in an interview prior to his Nov. 2 departure. "That's what gives me butterflies."

Butler, along with HCDFRS Battalion Chief Jose Sanchez, are two of 23 fire personnel from across the United States embarking on a volunteer mission to the West African country aimed at vitalizing its challenged fire service.

The officers, who paid their own way for the three-week excursion that ends Nov. 25, did not come empty-handed. Traveling with them from were 250 sets of modern firefighting gear, a modern fire engine — which Butler says is the country's first in decades — and an ambulance.

In addition, the officers are bringing over 400 years of professional fire service experience, which they will use to teach and train the Liberian firefighters.

Liberia is a country approximately the size of Tennessee with a population of about 4 million people. In 2003, it emerged from approximately 23 years of civil war and unrest, which led to the derailment of many organizations, including the Liberia National Fire Service.

"You have members of the fire service with up to 15 years of experience that would have a difficult time passing an entrance exam in the United States," said Kenneth Prillaman, founder and commander of the Fire Rescue Alliance, the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the country's fire service.

But according to Prillaman, who is the chief of the fire department in Brooklyn Park, Minn., the fire service's inadequacy is not for lack of bravery or vigor.

"These guys are amazing firefighters despite how much the odds are against them," he said.

Butler, who moved to Columbia from Liberia in 1980, agrees.

"The Liberian firefighter is like most firefighters I've ever met, professional type A's centered on helping others," he said. "Their weakness is their lack of equipment and training. ... This year, they had two firefighters die of injuries that were preventable."

Butler said that in addition to donating the equipment, the alliance will train the service's 250 for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week with the help of fire professionals with differing expertise. Among the "wide spectrum" of experts making the trip is the 50-year-old Sanchez.

"As the department's safety officer, I am looking forward to further spreading the mindset of 'Everyone Goes Home' to a distance I never thought imaginable," said Sanchez, who leaves Tuesday, Nov. 12.

When Butler returned from the alliance's initial visit last year, he recalled Sanchez's interest and persistence.

"He said he'd like to go with me one day and usually that's just small talk, but Joe never let up on that," Butler said.

Sanchez said the trip is about changing lives, and not just in Liberia.

"I expect to learn as much from them, as I believe they will learn from me," he said.