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

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No institution in Afghanistan gets more Western attention than that country's security forces. The U.S. and other countries are spending billions of dollars to refurbish the Afghan army and police, providing them with expensive training, weapons and vehicles, even aircraft. Yet some Afghans who don a uniform have been left out of this big investment: firefighters. Many Afghans don't even realize they have a national fire department.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.

(Soundbite of fire alarm)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The alarm sounds, and Kabul's main fire station springs to life.

(Soundbite of truck)

NELSON: A dozen men hop into well-worm 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. Colonel Mohammad Kazem complains that he only has 13 trucks with which to fight fires in Kabul, a city with more than four million residents. He adds that all of the trucks are old and unreliable.

Colonel MOHAMMED KAZEM (Kabul Fire Chief): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: 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 General Amanullah, who runs Afghanistan's 950-man fire department.

General ALHAJ AMANULLAH (Afghan National Fire Chief): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Amanullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name, says most towns and provinces don't have a fire station because there are only 53 fire engines to go around. 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 fire officials here 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 to fire codes or other safety standards.

Gen. AMANULLAH: (Through translator) 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.

NELSON: The Kabul fire chief says his men have gotten some new things, like helmets and fire coats. But he and Amanullah say what they need more are fire trucks.

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

Brigadier General WALTER GIVHAN (Commander, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing): We are building capacity as quickly as we can. And naturally, the security part of this has been a priority for some time. And now what you see, I think, is an emphasis broadening to try to bring everything else along and bring it up to the level that we've been able to achieve in the security.

NELSON: That includes the national fire department, he says.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of fire truck)

NELSON: Recently, Kabul fire chief Kazem and nine of his men were invited to train on one of 32 new American fire trucks 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.

Why they are still at the base, neither the military nor the U.S. Embassy could say, 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.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: 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 fire trucks for months.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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