09/29/2013 11:00 EDT | Updated 11/29/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian retiree helping to send gear to underequipped Dominican fire halls

Carl Eggiman sits in his condo's garden in the Dominican Republic, iPad in hand and sipping cafe con leche.

"It's not Tim Hortons," he says over the phone from Punta Cana, "but it is good Dominican coffee."

It's been five years since the eastern Ontario retiree bought his Caribbean condo and four since he helped set up the first fire department in Punta Cana's north.

Since then, Eggiman led the effort to provide seven underequipped fire departments with donated Canadian equipment. It involved more than 10 shipments, 3.6 tonnes and $1.25 million worth of gear — including two fire trucks — and $25,000 of Eggiman's own money.

And now, Eggiman is setting his sights on equipping all 165 of the country’s fire departments, an initiative that can require up to 150 tonnes of additional shipments.

"We can probably have it done within four to six months," he says.

Eggiman, of Carrying Place, Ont., near Belleville, was a provincial police officer before he left in 2000 to manage his wife's Tim Hortons franchise. As they neared retirement, the couple bought property in the Dominican Republic, and Eggiman learned of the lack of a fire department through the local Rotary club.

He then established the fire department together with the community, and that one initiative soon flourished into a long-term project to modernize the region's fire departments.

Punta Cana fire chief Miguel Angel Alvarez says many of the region's departments are wildly underequipped, with some lacking even a fire truck with a pump for putting out large fires.

"The lack of equipment and tools not only makes it difficult for firefighters, it also endangers their lives," he says in a translated email.

Working with Dominican fire departments, Eggiman travels each year to Ontario to canvass the province's fire departments for gear.

In May he became the Ontario representative for Firefighters Without Borders Canada and his mandate expanded to encompass the entire Dominican Republic.

The group's president Randy Dubbert says firefighting technology evolves faster than equipment wears out, so Canadian fire departments often have a lot of surplus as they get new gear while the old equipment is still usable.

Even before getting involved with Firefighters Without Borders Canada, Eggiman managed to get 12 fire departments on board that were keen to repurpose their equipment.

The enthusiasm then spread, with the Canadian consulate in the Dominican Republic and the Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines offering help with air shipping.

After making contact, Firefighters Without Borders put Eggiman in touch with an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter from New Brunswick, who canvassed his province and contributed 50 boxes of gear, worth about $25,000, to Eggiman's cause.

Early this month, nearly 15 tonnes of equipment, including an ambulance — Eggiman's largest shipment to date — left the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick.

It was more than everything he had shipped previously, so heavy that planes could not take it.

So it marked the first time a shipment went by sea — it was also the first time one got stuck.

The 12-metre cargo box arrived in the Dominican Sept. 10, but was held at customs for nearly two weeks.

Eggiman, who was in New Brunswick to co-ordinate the shipment at the time, says the holdup was a result of him modifying paperwork while equipment was en route. Eggiman's wife and Alvarez worked respectively with Canadian and Dominican Republic authorities to resolve the issue.

The shipment was unpacked about one week ago and is Eggiman is currently working to distribute the gear among local fire departments.

While modernizing an entire country's equipment sounds daunting, similar initiatives have been undertaken before.

In a four-year effort that ended last year, Firefighters Without Borders delivered more than 800 sets of personal protective equipment, including suits, helmets, goggles and boots, to El Salvador. To date, more than 70 per cent of firefighting equipment in use in the country originated from the group.

It is a stand-alone, all-volunteer organization with few resources and scarce funding, but Firefighters Without Borders has expanded to help fire departments in eight countries since its founding in 2008.

Eggiman said he and Firefighters Without Borders are already setting their sights beyond the Dominican Republic, to regions previously untouched, such as Haiti and Antigua.

"What Canadians do is help other countries," he says.