Lack Of Resources Hampers Afghan Firefighters Despite billions in foreign aid pouring into Afghanistan, the entire country has only 53 fire engines. Afghan firefighters say neglect of the national fire department has made it harder for them to do their jobs now than at any time during the agency's 90-year history.
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Lack Of Resources Hampers Afghan Firefighters

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Lack Of Resources Hampers Afghan Firefighters

Lack Of Resources Hampers Afghan Firefighters

Lack Of Resources Hampers Afghan Firefighters

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Afghan firefighters in Kabul receive training on a new American Ford firetruck. The country's current 53 firetrucks are old and unreliable. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Afghan firefighters in Kabul receive training on a new American Ford firetruck. The country's current 53 firetrucks are old and unreliable.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

One of 32 new American Ford firetrucks slated to be delivered to the Afghan fire department. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Firefighters practice a fire drill. They use decades-old firetrucks, the engines of which are pieced together with used parts. The tankers, as evidenced by the water puddles around them, leak. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Firefighters practice a fire drill. They use decades-old firetrucks, the engines of which are pieced together with used parts. The tankers, as evidenced by the water puddles around them, leak.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

The firefighters bunk in this room while they await calls. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

The firefighters bunk in this room while they await calls.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

The United States and other donors are spending billions of dollars to refurbish the Afghan army and police, providing them with expensive training, weapons, vehicles and even aircraft.

Yet other Afghans who don a uniform and serve their country, like national firefighters, have been left out of this mass investment — at least until now.

The national fire department is an agency many Afghans — let alone foreigners — don't even realize exists.

The firemen say the neglect makes it harder for them to do their jobs now than at any time during the agency's 90-year history.

The Need For New Trucks

On one particular day, an alarm sounds and Kabul's main fire station springs to life.

A dozen men hop into well-worn fire engines that spew nearly as much black smoke as the blazes they are called to fight. The trucks lurch forward, leaving behind a trail of water seeping from their leaky tanks.

The city fire chief shakes his head in frustration. Col. Mohammad Kazem complains that he has only 13 trucks with which to fight fires in Kabul, a city with more than 4 million residents. He adds that all of the trucks are old and unreliable.

Maybe, he says, we should call this the Kabul fire museum instead of the Kabul fire department.

Yet his boss says the Kabul station is one of the lucky ones. At least it has fire trucks, says Gen. Amanullah, who runs Afghanistan's 950-man fire department.

Amanullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name, says most towns and provinces don't have a fire station because there aren't enough fire engines to go around — only 53 for the entire country.

He says there were 12 times as many trucks three decades ago, before war and looting decimated the agency's fleet.

But he and other Afghan fire officials say the need for a robust fire department is much greater now than it was back then. Construction is booming across Afghanistan, much of it without any thought given to fire codes or other safety standards.

"We are upset, but it's out of our hands. We are waiting for help from our international friends. We've even begged the Afghan Interior Ministry to give us money so that we can buy the trucks ourselves. But for two years, no one has given us anything but promises," Amanullah says.

Searching For International Help

Kazem, the Kabul fire chief, says his men have gotten some new things, such as helmets and fire coats. But he and Amanullah say what they need more are firetrucks.

U.S. Brig Gen. Walter Givhan says he understands their frustration. He heads the combined air power transition force in the country, which has trained and equipped the Afghan military's firefighters.

"We are building capacity as quickly as we can, and naturally the security part of this has been a priority for some time," Givhan explains.

Now, he says, there is an emphasis on broadening that focus to bring the same kind of progress to other areas, including the national fire department.

Recently, Kazem and nine of his firefighters were invited to train on one of 32 new American firetrucks bought for the national fire department, but which Afghan officials say have been sitting at an American base on the east side of town for months.

Neither the military nor the U.S. Embassy could say why the fire engines are still at the base. But Afghan officials claim it's because they and the Americans can't agree on where the new fire engines should go.

Nor can the Afghans agree among themselves.

During the training session, a debate erupts between the Kabul fire chief and his counterpart in the Afghan military, who claims the new trucks should go to the air corps — never mind that the military firefighters have had new firetrucks for months.