John Butler wasn’t too far off when he thought he was driving toward a tire fire as he approached a column of smoke with the noxious, gag-inducing stench of burning rubber.
But as he got closer to the fire - “a real rager,” he said - at a warehouse in the bustling Liberian capital of Monrovia, he realized there were no tires.
“It was flip flops,” he said, waiving his hand toward the ceiling of his office in the Columbia Gateway Building. “Flip flops to the ceiling.”
Butler, an assistant chief with the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, was in Liberia with a group of American firefighters, helping to train the local fire service there.
He was with firefighters from both countries, riding with Liberia's single fire engine, when they spotted the column of smoke. The crew took action and Butler and Fire Chief Ken Prillaman, from Minnesota, assisted. "We were pretty aggressive," Butler said.
Together, American and Liberian firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading to the adjacent businesses.
It was a the first time in his professsional career that Butler was teaching people how to fight fires "in real time, in the real world" as opposed to a simulation or training fire.
“We couldn’t have planned it any better,” he said. It built credibility. “Don’t just hear what I have to say, see what I can do.”
Butler, who lives in Ellicott City, was in Liberia last month with Prillaman and about 10 other volunteers from across United States as part of the newly formed Fire and Rescue Alliance. The group of fire and rescue personnel from Los Angeles to Maryland and points in between took time off from work and paid their own ways to Liberia where they donated supplies to the country’s 500-member fire department, and trained the men and women in modern fire fighting techniques.
There is one fire truck in the country, Butler said, and in Monrovia, population 1.5 million, there are fatal fires on a weekly basis. That’s because, in addition to the lack of fire trucks, he said, the fire department is lacking other basic firefighting tools.
The country, with its history of conflict, has an understanding of the importance of police and military, Butler said, “but I think the fire department was kind of being kicked to the curb a little bit.”
Liberia was in a civil war from 1989 – 2003, when then-president Charles Taylor stepped down, facing an indictment from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. A verdict in that trial is expected to be issued Thursday.
Despite all that the Liberian firefighters are lacking, Butler said, “Firefighters are firefighters. Around the world, we have the same core values.
“They have enthusiasm and motivation. They are very strong, very professional, but they were missing the bare necessities,” Butler said.
“They still fight fire with regular clothing. They don’t have breathing masks. They don’t have helmets or gloves or boots.
“It was humbling,” he said. “I can’t focus on that enough. What these people were willing to do; to fight fires without helmets. To fight fires without turnout gear. To go into burning buildings, hold their breath, fight the fire, then come out and get a breath. It really makes you appreciate what we have, particularly in Howard County.”
Butler was born in Liberia and moved to the United States as a young teenager in 1980. He was connected to the Fire and Rescue Alliance in January, after his mother, sitting at an airport, overheard an American firefighter talking about going to Liberia.
That firefighter was Prillaman, fire chief and emergency management director in Brooklyn Park, MN, where about 10 percent of the population is Liberian.
Maryland, too, has a unique connection to Liberia, a country on the northwest coast of Africa that was colonized by former American slaves.
The southeastern-most county of the country, Maryland County, was initially established as the Republic of Maryland by the Maryland State Colonization Society, established in 1831.
The state of Maryland paid for former slaves to relocate to the Republic of Maryland, an independent state from 1854 – 1857, when it was incorporated into Liberia.
Butler said that he had little time to reconnect with family during his 10-day visit. “We spent a lot of time doing what we went for,” he said, “training firefighters. It was a balancing act. You’re there for a purpose, but I found an hour here or two hours there to visit.”
The group also met with members of the current Liberian government, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to discuss the different ways a successful fire department can make a difference in rebuilding Liberia.
“One of them is economic development,” Butler said. “There are merchants who said, ‘You know, we don’t have a fire department, therefore I have to pay $100,000 more in insurance.’ That money could be used for economic development investment.”
Another way to help stabilize any country is through education; in addition to leaving the Liberian firefighters with a host of textbooks, the Fire and Rescue Alliance took up another cause while it was in Liberia.
“As if we didn’t have our hands full,” Butler said with a chuckle, “we decided we would help build a school.” A former Liberian resident traveled with the group from the United States in hopes of building a school in his former hometown, which had been devastated by the years of war.
Butler’s brother, George Butler, a Maryland State Trooper based out of the Waterloo Barracks, focused on that part of the project. So far, the group has collected building supplies and continues to collect donations to fund both the school and fire training projects – including a fire truck, a donation from the Boston Fire Department
“You can only do but so much in 10 days,” Butler said. He returned to the United States ahead of some of the other volunteers to help his sister, Olga Butler, with her School Board campaign in Howard County.
“But we’ve laid the groundwork for future trips,” he said. He mentioned “future trips” often, a sign of the group’s - and his - commitment to the Liberian fire service.
It’s the same in Howard County as it is in Maryland County.
“Firefighters,” he said, “you can’t help enough. I think that’s the bare, basic nature of who we are.”