Firefighters Crossing Borders: A Firefighter Nonprofit Organization
We often think of firefighters as the team of people we call when faced with life-threatening situations, but we often forget to ask who they reach out to when they need help. Thanks to organizations like Firefighters Crossing Borders, firefighters in countries that don’t have the financial means to assist their departments can contact them for assistance with things like PPE, fire equipment, and education.
We sat down with the founder and Executive Director of Firefighters Crossing Borders, Joel Schwarz, to learn more about the journey to starting his organization.
What is Firefighters Crossing Borders?
Joel's career spanned 37 years as an EMT, Paramedic, Firefighter, and officer. In 2015 he retired from Washington State's Gig Harbor Fire Department. During his firefighting career, Joel, with the help of local firefighters, founded the nonprofit organization Firefighters Crossing Borders in 2000. They donate surplus firefighting equipment to groups across the world. While most of their efforts focus on counties of Mexico, they also assist firefighters in South America, Europe, Haiti, and Japan.
They are a volunteer-based organization made up of firefighters and first responders located in different regions across the country. Each region has a Team Leader who oversees specific operations and creates their work group, which usually is made up of volunteers from their department. They also have expanded their board to six members of active and retired firefighters.
In addition, they provide training in a series of topics in countries that need access to these resources. They primarily focus on fire-specific training but can also provide training in medical, EMT, and CPR upon request. They helped establish these departments and encourage them to expand their scope, make connections with departments within their area, and create a support system for each other. Often, countries like Mexico can’t rely on government assistance to provide gear for every fire department, so organizations like Firefighters Crossing Borders step in to help. Without assistance, these firefighters are required to buy their own gear if those resources are not available to them, or they reach out to the public for their support through fundraising.
Where Was Your First Donation?
In 1999, Joel’s wife asked him to be a medic for a church group going down to the city of Tecate, Baja, California, on Mexico's border. While there, he had the opportunity to visit their local fire department. It was then he noticed the conditions they were working under were not what he had experienced in the US. The firefighters in Tecate had explained to Joel they shared their protective gear with each other because they didn’t have enough to provide for each person. Not only is it not good, but it’s not safe.
After he left Mexico, he kept in touch with the firefighters from the department and made it his goal to collect enough turnout gear to provide for everybody. He knew departments near him go through a surplus amount of equipment that no longer becomes useable due to the safety standards surrounding them in the US; however, the equipment still has remaining life for the time they are being used. He asked for permission from his department to donate their surplus equipment and found surrounding departments wanted to participate in the donation as well. The following year, Joel and another firefighter from his department loaded a pickup truck and drove to Mexico. Personal protective clothing has been their mantra ever since.
Later, fire departments throughout Washington began to reach out to Joel after hearing about his cause. They were looking for ways to not throw out their good equipment due to liability reasons and offered an opportunity to continue its use out of the country.
“So, imagine fighting a fire, getting it [bunker gear] wet, getting it dirty, and then having to give it to the next person on the next shift. And that’s how they operated."
What is Your Donation Process?
When a department reaches out to Firefighters Crossing Borders for help, they start by researching if the department has a sister city in the US. Sister cities are partnerships between two cities in different countries to support each other economically and culturally. If they have one, Firefighters Crossing Borders will help establish that relationship until they have become acquainted, then they will step away to allow the departments to work together. They have had both successful and unsuccessful efforts with this method. However, if the sister city cannot step in to help, then Firefighters Crossing Borders can step in if they have the time and resources to do so.
They prefer to work with one department and provide constant assistance when needed, then have that department train the smaller ones since they have easier access to them. This lets the Leads know what equipment to look out for and what items often need to be replaced. When gear needs to be sent over, the Leads will communicate this to the board. Then once they receive a donation, they can best determine where that donation can go based on each department's inventory.
If Firefighters Crossing Borders is unable to pick up a donation, they will do one of two things: (1) They will reach out to similar organizations they have built relationships with to collect the donated content. (2) If the group accepting the donation is nearby, they will organize for them to pick up the contents. Firefighters Crossing Borders does not have to physically pick up the donations to accept them.
Here is an example of one of their donation processes:
A US fire department had a fire apparatus they wanted to donate to Firefighters Crossing Borders. First, it is communicated to the Leads to determine the best department to receive the apparatus. Unfortunately, they ran into a logistical challenge of getting the apparatus down to the original fire department in need. So, to help determine which Lead in a region gets the apparatus, it came down to whichever department had the resources to send a volunteer to pick it up first. Unless the Lead makes a case for it, they are unable to say who needs it more due to the challenge of moving the fire engine.
“Watching them pick out their gloves, pick out their hoods that are going to be theirs and the coats and things like that. This happens every time our members go down; there’s going to be something that we’re bringing them that they are in dire need of.”
What Challenges Have You Faced?
The main challenge they face is that they frequently receive donated gear but are limited as to what they can accept. Certain types of equipment, like air tanks, must be tested for safety to send as donations. When Joel was an active firefighter, he would recruit fellow firefighters whose role in the department was ensuring the tanks operated correctly. Firefighters Crossing Borders worked with a company in Seattle that would test the air tanks that had been donated to them before they sent them out. Unfortunately, they are unable to work with that company now, but they did find a new company in Utah that can do the same thing on a limited basis.
The next challenge they face is since Firefighters Crossing Borders is a nonprofit organization, they are limited on travel funds for the volunteers that go down to Mexico. The volunteers who provide the training pay for their own travel expenses to Mexico, and the host departments will provide meals and lodging through a hotel or at the firefighter's home. In addition to travel expenses, the volunteer must also use their vacation hours. Typically, if the volunteer is driving, they take up to 10 days off since the training duration would last about 5-7 days, and the few extra days would account for the drive time.
The third challenge they faced was due to the Covid pandemic. They were unable to send volunteers to Mexico to donate gear, so shipping became a large part of how they moved equipment. The number of donations didn’t slow down, but they needed the funds to pay for shipping, so they began fundraising. Unfortunately, they were unable to raise enough to meet the supply they were receiving. Instead, they asked the larger departments that receive the donations to assist with shipping. Currently, they still ship when they have the funds available, but now they wait until the donation is large enough to send through a shipping container or a cargo. With this new process, Firefighters Crossing Borders members are seeing these departments are more diligent with their new gear. Through fundraising, reaching out to other organizations, and the support they are starting to gain from their government, the departments accepting the donations have more ownership too.
In 2022, Firefighters Crossing Borders shipped over 40 pallets of gear. To streamline their donation process, they house the extra donations they don’t have space for in a donated warehouse space they acquired along the Mexico border. So even if they don’t have a department that needs it yet, they at least have a location for fire departments to easily access when they have a need for equipment.
“We have a phrase, ‘we wanna go home at the end of our shift to our families safe,’ and we want them to do the same. And that resonates basically firefighter to firefighter. I think that’s another reason why the people we send down enjoy it so much, and we’re so accepted.”
How Did Firefighters Crossing Borders and True North Gear’s Relationship Begin?
The first introduction to Firefighters Crossing Borders was in 2006 when our President, Steve Misiano, contacted Joel to donate samples of our wildland packs and clothing. The majority of that donation was able to assist the firefighters in Mexico fighting wildfires.
Over the years, we have received feedback on how our gear has helped the fire community. For example, our Bailout Bags were donated to the national police organization in Cambodia and turned into personal first aid kits. Many of these bags were donated to local fire departments in Washington and turned into personal protection gear kits (i.e., gloves, scissors) to keep in the apparatus. Our fire shelter bags have also been turned into mask bags for many departments. Most of the time, the main compartment of the wildland pack is donated and turned into tool bags or holds a particular rope system, etc. To this day, Joel has components to our wildland packs from our initial donation that he repurposes with gear that’s been donated to build custom items.
In January, our recent donation to Firefighters Crossing Borders was distributed to local Human Service programs in Kitsap County in Washington State (i.e., homeless shelters, low-income families programs, etc.) We learned that one of the items we donated, our Hi-Vis shirts, is being used for the personnel at these programs. They have days called Assistance Days, where personnel would go out to the community and provide aid to the people in need. They also hosted an event called the Project Connect Service Fairs, where an estimated 350 people were able to take advantage of the outerwear provided.
In the last several years, it has been encouraging that they have gathered a group of firefighters that are committed to Firefighters Crossing Borders. During that time, they expanded their board to six members; several were younger firefighters being trained to be future leaders of the organization. Regardless of the future of Firefighters Crossing Borders, Joel hopes to still be a part of the organization somehow. Thank you to Joel and the Firefighter’s Crossing Borders team for continuing the life of our products by providing them to those in need. For more information on how you can donate your gear, visit FirefightersCrossingBorders.org.
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