Blog: The personal journeys and international friendships behind FIRE AID 4 Ukraine
Co-authored by Corrine Vibert (EASST), Claire Hoyland (EASST/FIRE AID), Mike Pitney (Kent FRS/FIRE AID), Alf Wilson (SESHAA/FIRE AID), and Oksana Romanukha (Impact NGO Ukraine).
Having worked in Ukraine for a decade, when the invasion happened on 24th February we were all profoundly shocked and heartbroken. We couldn’t stop thinking about our Ukrainian friends and colleagues and what they must be going through. We felt compelled to help in whatever way we could.
For those who don’t know the story of FIRE AID, our work began in 2012 through an initial collaboration in Ukraine between our founding members the Eastern Alliance for Safe and Sustainable Transport (EASST), and Kent Fire and Rescue Service, with the support of the UK Embassy in Kyiv. This first project included the donation of two fully equipped decommissioned fire engines along with fire suits, equipment, and training to the town of Korosten near Chernobyl in Ukraine. At the time, firefighters were using still using old Soviet fire engines, equipment, and PPE.
The initial donations to Korosten have been supplemented and replenished over the years under the umbrella of FIRE AID, the most recent being deployed in November 2021. Other regions have also since benefited from FIRE AID support. We have formed strong ties with the Ukrainian Emergency Services – as well as firm friendships. This long legacy of contact and understanding between the UK and Ukrainian fire services has been critical to the successful planning and execution of the recent convoys.
Within days of the invasion, we contacted the Ukrainian Emergency Services and initiated a plan to mobilise FIRE AID members to donate 4 fire engines to Ukraine to help firefighters on the front line. A JustGiving Page was swiftly set up, seeking £15,000 to support this effort.
“For me, although I have worked in other FIRE AID supported counties such as Moldova and Tajikistan, my heart lies firmly in Ukraine. This is where I started in a role that led to the formation of FIRE AID, with EASST’s Emma MacLennan. I have since gone on to make the very best of friends in this country, and as far as I am concerned real families that have practically adopted me over the years. So, there is a personal element for me, which I use to keep a clear focus on what is needed: which is continuous support, not something that fades as we get used to news on what may be a long-lasting conflict.” – Mike Pitney
“We were able to utilise our long-standing relationships with the Polish and Ukrainian fire services to respond quickly to the crisis in Ukraine. When we heard NFCC were asking services to offer equipment for donation to Ukraine as well, we made contact to offer our expertise to get their equipment to Ukraine alongside the convoy we already had planned.”
“Using our international experience, together with the enormous amount of decommissioned equipment which was offered to the NFCC we were able to mobilise quickly and effectively.” – Claire Hoyland
In partnering with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), 4 fire engines quickly became 8… 8 became 10… 10 became 16… and within a week we had 18 vehicles being donated by fire and rescue services across the UK along with thousands of items of equipment and PPE. Everyone wanted to help. It was an emotional week and we were overwhelmed by the response.
In the end, every fire service across the UK stepped in to support these efforts, working hard to identify kit, ensuring it was in good working order, packing it, and sourcing volunteer drivers and support staff.
It is important to note that every item donated is either decommissioned or surplus to requirements and would have otherwise been destined for scrap or landfill.
In a quest for more funds to support what would be FIRE AID’s biggest ever convoy, we approached our long-time supporter, the FIA Foundation, who gave us a generous donation to support an initial scoping visit to Poland and a bigger deployment.
“Firefighters are a rare breed of human being, never more so than when they see that their brothers and sisters, nationally and internationally, in need of support and help.”
“I know personally from my own experiences the bond that exists, both individually and as a group. The warmth that you feel when as a team you stop off and ask for a place to stay on your way across the continent is real. Together we get aid to some area of the world where it will support and help protect those firefighters endeavouring to protect their citizens, either through war or lack of equipment. This feeling of family makes all the work worth it.” – Alf Wilson
As the scale of the convoy increased, the UK Home Office, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also got involved and an official Task Force was established to support and coordinate the convoy. This included members of the wider fire sector: MSA Safety, Fire Sector Federation (FSF), the Fire and Rescue Suppliers [FIRESA] Council, and the Fire Industry Association (FIA).
“Partnering with the NFCC and wider fire industry to coordinate these convoys has been a life saver. We have never done anything this big before. Their experience in dealing with national and international crisis has been essential in enabling us to deploy the donations so rapidly, with an established command structure in place.” – Claire Hoyland
A 3-day scoping visit was carried out by FIRE AID members, Alf Wilson and Mike Pitney, who visited Poland in early March to make the necessary arrangements for the equipment to be received and transferred to Ukraine.
“As part of the scoping visit team, we were, amongst other things, seeking to gather information regarding, partnership opportunities with the Polish State Fire Service. The forming of the partnership would establish an effective and safe means of handing over all donations from UK Fire and Rescue Services for the aid and support of the Ukrainian Emergency Services. Having had experience in former support projects with the Polish State Fire Service, I was in no doubt that they would be willing to help and support us. The welcome and openness to be a partner with the UK and FIREAID and International Development was even more than I had expected, the immediate feeling of a shared objective and a willingness to support the Ukrainian Emergency Service was, and still is, an example of outstanding partnership working” – Alf Wilson
Within days of their return, the Scottish Emergency Rescue Association were ready to deploy the first 4 fire engines. After a short delay, they left Edinburgh on 17th March. Just three weeks after the invasion started.
“Before now, our typical prep time for a convoy has been at least 3 months, if not longer. It is a huge amount of work. Delivering our biggest ever convoy within 3 weeks is something I would never have imagined to be possible. We have worked day and night.”
“The support we have received from the Home Office, NFCC, FIA, UKISAR and others has been phenomenal and has made it all possible in such a short amount of time.” – Claire Hoyland
Two days later, on 19th March, a convoy of 22 vehicles also left Kent. This included 18 fire appliances, two lorries of equipment and kit, and 2 support vehicles. This was the biggest ever UK convoy to be sent overseas.
By this time, it was becoming quite clear how needed this equipment was. We now know that within the first month of the invasion over 100 fire stations across Ukraine had been destroyed and many more fire engines, and a significant number of fire fighters had also tragically lost their lives.
“Every day we were seeing images on the new of buildings on fire with fire fighters battling to save them, and rescue citizens.” – Claire Hoyland
The process of coordinating the convoy, organising logistics, and prepping the donations for delivery is no mean feat: with over 60 volunteer drivers, medics, and mechanics to coordinate per convoy, customs paperwork, insurance and vehicle documentation, mechanical checks, fuel, and financing, as well as arrangements to hand over the vehicles at the other end and training local fire fighters in how to operate them.
The UK International Search and Rescue Team (UKISAR) were true heroes – stepping up to play a key role. They packed the vehicles and ensured all kit was in good working order, as well as checking the inventory was up to date and only kit required was sent to reduce pressure on both Poland and Ukraine. With the shear amount of equipment being sent we can honestly say that the convoy wouldn’t have made it without them.
The drive to Poland took around 3 days with drivers being hosted overnight by fire services in Germany and Poland. The German and Polish services also provided our drivers with a ‘blue lights’ escort and, importantly, cleared the way ahead when 22 vehicles needed to stop for refuelling! It has been a true international collaboration, demonstrating the solidarity and camaraderie within the ‘fire family’.
Once the convoy arrived, Polish and Ukrainian firefighters were trained on how to use the equipment and it was deployed across the border to Ukraine where it was officially received by the Ukrainian Emergency Services, Impact NGO, and the Ministry of Interior in Lviv on 31st March.
“The support that we have been receiving from peer firefighters in the UK is immense. From the first day of this terrible war, our partners and friends in the UK, FIRE AID and EASST, actively started forming a new convoy of fire and rescue vehicles, equipment, and protective clothing to transfer to Ukraine.
Because new rescue units have been joining almost every day, ready to help, one small convoy became the UK’s biggest ever convoy, which was then surpassed by two more even bigger convoys.
This aid has been organised by a number of organizations from both the private and public sector and we are very grateful for this initiative. On the Ukrainian side, this process is coordinated by us, Impact NGO. Everything is to save the lives and property of people.
Once again, I want to thank our long-time partners in the UK! You give us a reliable shoulder and it keeps us going.” – Oksana Romanukha
We have been in touch with the Ukrainian Emergency Services almost on a daily basis since the start of the invasion. They have been sending lists of equipment that they need and we have been doing our best to fulfil those needs. As soon as the first convoy had been delivered, the Task Force was working on the second and third.
A shipment of over 1,500 sets of personal protective equipment was sent by train on 7th April. The second convoy, even bigger than the first, left the UK on 21st April, arriving in Poland on 25th. The third is due to leave on 5th May.
In total, we have donated over 60 vehicles and tens of thousands of items of equipment to Ukraine.
“Being a driving factor behind this humanitarian response has been an absolute honour. The impact that these donations are already having for the Ukrainian Fire Service is humbling. I am so proud of FIRE AID, all our member organisations, international and national partners for working together to ensure the success of these essential donations. I am also so pleased that the fire industry has supported the response, from donating new equipment, mobile mechanic support for the convoy and their time and expertise it truly has been a collaborative approach.” – Claire Hoyland
“From the moment the Russian invasion began I knew I had to use the knowledge and skills I’d learnt over the last 10 years to lead that first convoy and have since gone on to support and ensure the delivery of two more.”
“From here I look forward to finding more innovative ways of offering humanitarian support to this brave country and its courageous people.” – Mike Pitney