It was 20 years ago when former Avon Fire Brigade Chief Fire Officer, Dave Hutchings, visited The Gambia for a holiday. He never imagined that the trip would turn into a long standing charitable partnership.

In 1991 the fire and ambulance service in The Gambia consisted of one fire station for the whole country with virtually no staff, equipment, appliances and training. While enjoying a holiday in the African country Dave made contact with the fire service there and was invited to attend a serious road traffic collision. Sadly he witnessed a family of six die due to a lack of some of the most basic equipment.

So struck by what he had experienced, on his return to the UK Dave began to think about how he could make a difference to the lives of those living in and visiting The Gambia.

He began by canvassing support and even paid for two redundant fire appliances, no longer in use by Avon, himself and managed to persuade local businesses to fund the transportation costs.

He said: "I just wanted to do something to help. The resources, expertise and training we have in the UK is in a different league to The Gambia and I felt that we could put to good use the equipment and resources we no longer needed.

"I approached Councillor Terry Walker, Chair of Avon Fire Authority, about the initiative and so began the process of donating appliances and equipment to The Gambia. The support from Councillor Walker over the years has really made a difference to the work we have achieved."

But it wasn't just about supplying the equipment. There was a real need to train those using it out in The Gambia to ensure they could really take advantage of it.

Members of staff at Avon were offered the chance to get involved in providing training to the firefighters and regular 'trainers' trips' were organised.

Dave said: "We asked staff to pay for their own flights and accommodation so that there were no costs incurred and in the last 20 years I have been really impressed by everyone who has got involved. As well as firefighters carrying out breathing apparatus and water safety training, we have even had mechanics visit the country to help with the maintenance and training regarding the vehicles."

The training department in The Gambia now has 18 trainers, led by a senior trainer and a training manager, in line with the Avon model. Subjects include station management, breathing apparatus, boat handling skills and vehicle maintenance. Many of the visits have included staff from Airbus UK providing airfield crash and rescue courses at Banjul International Airport. Since the partnership began 18 Gambian fire officers have visited the UK to take part in training.

Following an audit in 2004, the Avon Fire & Rescue Service management at the time proposed that a charitable trust be established to ensure the facilitation of both the shipping and visits to the country. It was then that the Gambia and Avon Fire Services in Partnership (GAFSIP) was founded.

Since the partnership began The Gambia Fire & Rescue Service has employed 1,200 firefighters operating from 13 purpose-built fire stations.

Sea and river rescue equipment is also provided at four water rescue stations and eight clinics on fire stations offer free medical services.

Over the years there has been a natural progression towards assisting with improving basic health and educational facilities. This work was developed by GAFSIP with the establishment of a formal link with The Gambian authorities to provide support for education, in liaison with Ndey Bakurin, the wife of the Chief Fire Officer.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the partnership a new fire station opened in the Gambian town of Farafenni.

Even after Dave retired from Avon, he has continued to support the work of GAFSIP, drumming up assistance from the local community and visiting the country on a regular basis.

But it is not just Dave who has striven to make the partnership a success. Many principal officers who have risen through the ranks at Avon continue to support GAFSIP.

Current Chief Fire Officer / Chief Executive, Kevin Pearson, said: "I am immensely proud of the achievements we have made through GAFSIP over the last 20 years. We have really made a difference to the lives of those living and working in The Gambia.

"Everyone at Avon is keen to get involved in the work we do, whether it's providing training, administrative support or shaking buckets to raise funds. Without the support of our staff we would not have achieved so much.

"This is a truly rewarding project to have been involved in and I hope it will continue well into the future."

Back in 2010 Avon Fire & Rescue Service was officially recognised in the New Year honours in The Gambia and was awarded the insignia of Commander of the National Order of the Republic of The Gambia (CRG). This is the highest honour awarded by the President of The Gambia, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya A JJ Jammeh.

The award recognises the work of the organisation, including that of Avon Fire Authority Members and Avon staff to support GAFSIP.

In December last year the Gambian Chief Fire Officer, Roger Bakurin, visited Avon as part of the celebrations to mark the 20 year partnership. A special event involving staff, supporters and fundraisers was held at Yate Fire Station in South Gloucestershire.

A further two Avon appliances and an ambulance, donated by Airbus UK, were handed over to The Gambia Fire & Rescue Service and a number of awards to recognise the contributions of staff and supporters were awarded.

CFO / CE Pearson said: "To have achieved so much in the last 20 years is incredible. The links between Avon and The Gambia continue to grow stronger year on year and we have established many great friendships through this partnership. With the support of our staff and the local community I am sure we can look forward to many more years of working together for the benefit of those living, working and enjoying The Gambia."
Posted 16/02/2012by