Saudi firefighters graduate from foreign exchange program hosted by Atlanta fire

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

A group of six Saudi Aramco Oil Company firefighters graduated Wednesday from a six-month international training program with the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department.

The cohort traveled to the United States to learn American firefighting standards and training by immersing themselves in the culture. It’s part of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ fellowship program that places Saudi Aramco firefighters in departments across the country.

The goal is for them to gain more aggressive, real-life experience in making strategic decisions under pressure by working in high-call volume fire departments, such as Atlanta, and taking those skills back to their department.

“These six months are your six months to learn, to experience, ask questions ... to take back to your country — and to your department — everything you can,” Jeff Dulin, strategic advisor for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the group during their graduation ceremony at fire station 28 Wednesday morning.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The fire department for Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s largest energy companies, is charged with protecting the oil refinery’s industrial sites, as well as its communities. Each year, it sends multiple groups of firefighters to different U.S. fire departments. The IAFC picks up the bill, making it cost-neutral for host departments.

During their stay in Atlanta, the firefighters, many of whom already have several years of experience under their belt, lived at their assigned firehouses and worked alongside Atlanta firefighters. With the exception of providing medical care due to their visa status, they performed full firefighting duties according to their skill level.

Mohammed Alyahyawi, a 12-year veteran with Saudi Aramco, said he was initially worried it would be hard to be in such a new environment so far from home. But he was pleasantly surprised when he arrived. Everyone was welcoming and happy to help his group navigate the culture shock, and he made a lot of new friends, he said.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Saudi firefighters all speak English, though some words — especially Atlanta’s slang — were a bit of a hurdle, Alyahyawi said.

It was “bittersweet” to see their time in Atlanta coming to an end, many of them said, coining a word they learned just the day before graduation. It described their emotions perfectly, they said.

“A few months ago, we left our home. We said goodbye to our families, friends and everyone we know. We embarked on a journey with no idea how it would be (in a) different country, different culture,” Ibrahim Alamri said. “And now, we will do the same thing (that) we did months ago: We will say goodbye to our friends here, to our families and to this country (that) now became our new home.”

The group will be headed back to Saudi Arabia over the next few days.

Since the program’s inception in 2016, there have been 22 cohorts with 160 graduates across the country, with plans for other countries to join the exchange program. Atlanta has hosted two fellowships, and the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department has hosted one.

“It was our pleasure to open our fire stations to the visiting firefighters and we were honored to have been selected for the (fellowship) program for a second cohort,” said Michelle Middlebrooks, AFRD’s assistant chief of support services. “The fellows bring a new perspective to our department, and our firefighters consistently give feedback about the value that it brings. We are extremely proud to participate in this unique exchange.”