Ind. city shares training materials with Baghdad fire department

Fort Wayne News Sentinel

The Fort Wayne Fire Department is accustomed to racing from one side of the city to the other, dousing fires and rescuing people.

For the last several months, though, the local department has been helping battle  blazes a little farther away  nearly 6,400 miles, to be exact, in Baghdad, Iraq, by sharing training materials.

The Fort Wayne departments effort has its roots in a friendship forged between a city native who now commands an Army field artillery battalion with responsibility for much of the southern part of the war-torn Iraqi city and Baghdads fire chief.

Part of Lt. Col. Steve Merkels job involves overseeing patrols of some of Baghdads meaner streets. When he assumed his job, his troops were frequently attacked by insurgents who hid behind the scrub brush that lined the roads. If the brush wasnt there, the Americans figured, their enemies would have fewer places to hide to stage their attacks.

Merkel approached Col. Laith Abbas, the Baghdad fire chief, to ask for help in torching the stands of brush. Abbas and his firefighters agreed, and soon they were briefly setting fires instead of putting them out.

When he was about to return to Fort Wayne on leave in September, Abbas asked Merkel if he could do his department a favor in return. The Baghdad department  with about 25 stations spread over the more than 168,000 square miles that make up the city  was well-equipped when it came to trucks and the like, Abbas said. What it lacked, however, was the material needed to train its nearly 4,000 full-time members and recruits in the basics of firefighting  the small but important skills theyd use every day in their jobs.

Could Merkel help, Abbas wondered? It turns out, he could.

Merkels uncle, Bob Trabel, is a Fort Wayne Fire Department captain who works at Station No. 2 on Taylor Street. When his nephew brought the Iraqi chiefs request to him, he steered it to Chief Eric Lahey and instructor Chris Walker of the departments training academy, and the wheels began rolling.

Lahey and Walker assembled a package of materials that included  multiple volumes of training manuals and compact discs. The Baghdad department uses it in the same way local firefighters do, with instructors preparing lesson plans from it and recruits and firefighters taking written tests based on what theyve learned.

The training assistance has spawned even more cooperation between the U.S. troops and the Iraqi firefighters. At one fire station, soldiers under Merkels command have begun helping clean out the dud pit, an area where residents bring unexploded ordnance. Members of an Army explosives disposal unit remove the material to be destroyed in a safe environment.

Abbas, whose department responds to everything from a fire in a one-story home to explosions at high-rise hotels, agreed the help goes both ways.

We will respond to any bomb strike, no matter who is hit  American or Iraqi, he said in an Army news release. We come to put down the fire and help our friends.

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