A Chief Concern
Leaving his native Liberia as a 12-year-old child due to political unrest, John S. Butler, B.A. ʼ03, hoped to return one day.
He just didn’t know he’d have children of his own by then. Or that the return trip would happen because of his mother.
In 2006, he says, “My mother was at the airport waiting to fly to Liberia when she heard two people talking fire department lingo. She found out they were firefighters, told them I was, too, and later asked them why they were going to Liberia. She knew the answer was in line with something I would want to do. …”
Today, Butler is chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, appointed by County Executive Allan Kittleman in 2015. Back then, he was working his way up the ranks—and his mother found a connection to help extend his passion for service by meeting this two-man team on their way to Liberia, a team that was finding ways to help the country get fire equipment and fire training it desperately needed.
Months later, it was a three-man team. And Butler eventually touched down in Liberia for the first time in roughly 30 years.
“The first visit was an assessment to see what they needed and what we could do,” he says. “We returned to the [United States] and created an assessment document of findings. Firefighters from Liberia didn’t have any training since the early ’70s, no working fire trucks and one dilapidated jalopy of an ambulance. They were dealing with fires in shorts, flip flops and T-shirts. … [They were] hardworking people [who were] not being given what they needed.”
Donations poured in from all over the United States of what would be considered outdated fire equipment here. But for firefighters in Liberia, it was a dream come true. “The Liberian government gave the money for a used fire truck, and a key player in facilitating financing from the government was Liberia’s vice president, Joseph Boakai,” Butler says.
“He was a major advocate, not just when it came to finding money but understanding the needs and expectations from his citizens,” he continues. “There were times standing in the [Liberian] capitol building when I thought about how I drove by decades ago, and I never thought I would be meeting with a vice president.”
Now, many Liberian firefighters are covered in helmets and gloves, are equipped with helpful manuals and can get behind the wheel of a fire truck shipped over from Wisconsin.
“We timed our trip with the truck getting there and brought around 15-20 firefighters and EMTs who wanted to volunteer to do something for the greater good,” Butler says. “We were there for three weeks, and that was some of the hardest work I’ve been a part of.”
Butler has been back on two more volunteer trips since and considers it some of his most important work. “It’s been a great feeling to be involved with this,” he says. “Liberia has some very committed firefighters.”