Belgian firefighters get a taste of the South during Macon visit

Belgian firefighters swapped waffles for pink pancakes Saturday while spending several days visiting their Macon-Bibb County counterparts.

Ten Belgian firefighters arrived Wednesday in Macon, and they have been living with and riding along with Macon-Bibb firefighters as a part of the nonprofit Belgian Fire Observers program.

“It’s so we can see how it works,” said Paul Vanlook, a firefighter from Gavere, Belgium, a town near Ghent, who organized the trip.

Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said Belgian firefighters visit American cities annually, and it’s an honor that they chose to come to Macon.

Assistant Chief Cliff Rushin said he met Vanlook online and suggested that the firefighters visit during Macon’s Cherry Blossom Festival.

During their stay, the Belgians sampled the festival’s cherry ice cream in Third Street Park and helped flip pink pancakes.

“We know what (the secret recipe) is,” Vanlook said of the pancakes. “But we’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Macon firefighters gave the Belgians a tour of the department’s training facility, giving firefighters from both countries a chance to trade firefighting knowledge and techniques.

Vanlook said the Belgians also rode along on medical calls, toured the 911 center and Monday watched as firefighters put out a fire at a vacant house on Cowan Street.

Separated into groups of two, the Belgian firefighters spent the night at Macon-Bibb fire stations, giving them the opportunity to talk more about firefighting, but also about life in their respective countries.

Belgian emergency medical worker Frederick Buyens of Zelzate, also near Ghent, said members of the Belgian group shared a firehouse tradition by cooking for their hosts during the visit. They prepared spaghetti, grilled meats and made their own variation of potato salad.

Rushin said Macon’s firefighters were inquisitive, and found that they shared many things with their visitors.

“The bottom line is we accomplish the same task,” he said.

What’s more, they discovered that the camaraderie shared among American firefighters crosses country lines.

“We’re all brothers in a brotherhood,” Rushin said.

While the Belgian firefighters are scheduled to leave Macon today, they plan to visit theme parks in Orlando and see the Kennedy Space Center before returning home in a week.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.