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Marine ignites Guyanese firefighters with knowledge, skills

GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- A large, wooden building goes up in flames in the heart of a city. The local fire service has engines racing to the scene. In the meantime, local citizens create a "bucket  brigade," a line of people tossing buckets of water on the inferno.

This colonial-era method of fire fighting is a common practice in Guyana where wooden buildings are likely to burn down before tankers filled with water arrive. When this fire is finally put out, what's left among the ashes can reveal the true cause of the blaze if one knows where to look.

U. S. Marine Corps Sergeant Major O'Neal Johnson Jr. knows where to look. After 20 years of service as a firefighter and 28 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, the described scene is all too familiar for the firefighting lieutenant, and he has a storehouse of knowledge and skill that he recently shared with local Guyanese firefighting professionals.

As a Marine Corps reservist, the Baltimore native deployed here to support New Horizons Guyana 2009 with his work as a part of the 4th Civil Affairs Group, Bolling Air Force Base, Navy Annex, Anacostia D.C.

However, after a fire destroyed a building, and the local Guyanese fire department conducted a fire investigation, Sergeant Major Johnson was asked to provide assistance to the Guyana Fire Service.

"Initially I wanted to meet with the fire chief officer after a building in the Ministry of Health compound caught fire," said Sergeant Major Johnson. "By the time I arrived, they had already cleaned up the scene , so training came about after the Military Liaison Office made my expertise available."

After several discussions and at the request of Guyanese Fire Service Chief Fire Officer Mr. Marlon Gentle, Sergeant Major Johnson arraigned to teach a class to the investigation section on fire ground preservation when dealing with a potential crime scene.

"My goal was to first meet and greet them and then see what the needs of the fire service and the fire fighters were," Sergeant Major Johnson said. "I know they have challenges because of the environment and lack of fiscal support, so I wanted to know what was needed and how I could help right now."

The class was structured to train investigation section personnel on certain types of equipment including a finger printing system, an arson investigation liquid sampler kit and a detection monitor.

Sergeant Major Johnson also added teaching elements that he thought would provide them with additional training and knowledge such as evidence collection, symptoms of ignitable liquid, key properties of ignitable liquids, accelerant evidence collection, packaging and labeling evidence and sampling procedures for common floor types.

"I wanted to teach them how to use the equipment and educate them on how to determine the start of a fire," he said. "That was the initial teaching strategy and then I went on to different topics of taking samples from a potential crime scene and evidence collection and preservation."

While training is important, the Guyana Fire Service was also in need of training materials such as books, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes covering a variety of topics.

To help with training material collection, Sergeant Major Johnson sent a request for support and assistance to his own firehouse and fire chief; Battalion Chief James Resnick of the Montgomery Co. Fire Rescue Battalion Two, Montgomery County Fire Rescue Services, Montgomery County, Maryland.

"I am going to take that upon myself to make it happen," said Sergeant Major Johnson. "I drafted a memo letter to assist with additional follow up training and resources."

Chief Gentle also recognizes the importance of training and available resources to improve the effectiveness of fire ground investigation.

"The fire ground investigation will be getting better here," he said. "We've always been collecting evidence but now we will be doing it more effectively."

The support Sergeant Major Johnson is seeking will also include sending two Guyana Fire Service firefighters to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., for additional training and certification.

"Fire fighting is a universal task and it's practiced all over the world," said Chief Gentle. "So we are always open to others' experiences and knowledge."

While training and resources is an important part of improving the Fire Service, Sergeant Major Johnson was also concerned with the water supply issues and the availability of brush trucks.

"In reference to the water infrastructure, they have issues getting copious amounts of water to the fire scene," Sergeant Major Johnson said. "They have tankers that carry anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water, but when that runs out they have to draft from contaminated water sources."

Brush trucks are also needed, he said.

A brush truck is a pickup truck that can fit into tight spaces and is equipped with a water hose and a small water tank.

"[A brush truck] would give them the opportunity to go into small alleyways and better assist in the fire fighting," said Sergeant Major Johnson.

With his time here drawing to a close, the Sergeant Major reflected on the training and was pleased with the result.

"I think the training went very well and I believe the firefighters here were engaged and eager to learn," he said. "I was humbled and overwhelmed that the Guyana Fire Service was willing to afford me the opportunity to come and teach. They welcomed me with open arms, so it's just another step in our partnering with the Guyanese to improve their quality of life and their techniques and skills in firefighting."

Chief Gentle agreed.

"We want to build on our capacity to fight fire," he said. "I know we've been doing things a little different than some others, but we appreciate Sergeant Major Johnson's efforts and we look forward to any additional support and training."

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