FIRE AID meets Kent Firefighter, Sam after his first trip to Moldova
Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Sam and I’m a Firefighter for Kent Fire & Rescue Service. From 6th – 12th May 2018 I was part of a team of drivers that delivered two fire appliances from the UK to donate to the people of Moldova. Covering a total of 1812 miles and crossing 9 countries, the journey had an additional significance for me as the appliance I would be delivering was from my former station (44 Rainham).
Leaving Sunday lunchtime the first (and probably shortest) leg of our journey saw us drive to Dover, this was the first opportunity I really had get to know the other members of my crew; Trevor and Dave. Trevor had completed two missions previously so was ‘the old hand’, whilst Dave and myself were both first-timers. It’s fair to say that all three of us were excited about the adventure ahead, particularly as the sun was shining and it was forecast to be warm all week.
After boarding the ferry at Dover we sat down with the rest of the team for a truckers’ dinner whilst our team leader, Roy, gave us an overview about what to expect over the next few days; we would be driving throughout the night aiming to reach our first stop, Vienna, on Monday afternoon. Back on the road Tuesday, then into Wednesday, we’d aim to reach the border of Romania/Moldova around Wednesday lunchtime, before heading to the capital, Chisinau.
Upon our arrival in Calais I was first in the driving seat. I decided that this probably wasn’t the best time to inform my colleagues I’d never driven on the right before. Fortunately it soon became second nature, apart from one minor incident when I pulled out on a police van at a roundabout. I think the police were so confused that a British fire appliance was on the roads of France that they didn’t have time to consider pulling us over! In the passenger seat for my stint of driving was Trevor, who by now I had renamed ‘DJ Trev’ as he was playing some banging tunes on his iPod as we progressed into Belgium, The Netherlands and then onto Germany. After four hours driving with one or two minor rest stops, it was my turn to have an 8 hour break, this included 4 hours sleeping in the back of the truck. Upon waking at around 8am I was told we were almost at the Germany/Austria border and were stopping for breakfast, naturally I had bratwurst.
The team welcomed to Weiner Neudorf Fire Station, Vienna
After our Monday morning breakfast we continued on across Austria before reaching Vienna in the early afternoon. We would be staying the night at Weiner Neudorf Fire Station, located in the industrial part of the city. I can honestly say the Austrians couldn’t have been more accommodating; upon our arrival we were greeted with cold drinks, given a tour of the fire station then driven by minibus to spend the afternoon sunbathing at a local lake. Following this we were treated to a traditional schnitzel dinner back at station supplemented with more cold drinks, it’s fair to say I slept well that night! The hospitality didn’t end there; Tuesday morning we were provided with a continental breakfast before being sent on our way with some Weiner Neudorf memorabilia for ourselves, plus a donation of safety equipment to be given to the Moldovans. ‘Prost’ to our brothers in Austria!
With our stomachs full on we went. Tuesday morning turned into Tuesday afternoon as Austria turned into Hungary. Reaching the border of Hungary/Romania by sun-set, after a stop for dinner, I would be first to sleep. I didn’t realise at the time but this was to set me up for two of my highlights of the journey; an hour or so after taking the driving seat, with both of my colleagues asleep, I had a surreal moment whilst driving through Cluj-Napoca. Despite it being around 2am there were still people awake in this large Romanian city, many of whom stopped to look, stare, point or smile at two British fire engines and a transit van rumbling their way through the streets. With DJ Trev’s iPod providing a soundtrack of house music, everything to me at that moment seemed pretty perfect. Around 4am it was Dave’s turn to take the wheel which meant that I was in the passenger seat. A couple of hours later, after climbing the roads into the mountains, we were able to witness the sunrise over Transylvania, a sight I’m sure I will never forget. After a quick stop to take photos it was my turn in the back again. Despite being thrown around by many potholes I managed to get a few hours’ sleep before being woken to find we were at our last stop before the Romania/Moldova border.
Wednesday morning, and after breakfast it was my turn to drive again, the journey to the border seemed fairly short, however despite being met by Oleg, a senior member of the Moldovan fire service, we were still held for two hours whilst the authorities checked everything was in order. After finally being allowed through we were escorted on lights and bells, by Oleg, to the capital – Chisinau. Arriving at small fire station, we gathered essentials before being transported by minibus to our hotel and after a well-earned dinner, we all had a reasonably early night.
Our first task for Thursday was to give the appliances a good wash however upon our arrival back at the station we found that the Moldovan firefighters based there had kindly washed the pumps for us, so after removing the rest of our personal effects we met Tatiana, an ambassador for the Automobile Club of Moldova. This was a good opportunity discover more about life in country, particularly with regard to road safety and how our donation was going to help. Tatiana was also able to tell us the plan for Friday, which involved a school visit in the morning before delivering the appliances to their final destination in the North of the county. After coffee we spent the afternoon exploring the city, including a visit to the local markets, where it seemed you could buy pretty much anything you could ever want. After a quick shower back at the hotel we met Oleg for dinner at a local restaurant that not only had good food but also a large collection of Soviet era cars, not something I was expecting!
Friday, our final day in Moldova, and what a busy day it would be. Our first stop was a local school where we greeted by Tatiana, fire crews from a nearby station and members of the press. We were led into a school assembly where one of the Moldovan firefighters, Dmitriy, delivered a talk to the children. Although speaking in Romanian his actions were understandable by all – even I learnt a few things. Immediately after the talk I was invited, along with my colleagues, to hand out reflective wristbands to help keep the children safe on the roads at night. Following this it was play time and the kids were invited outside to get hands on with the pumps, this included squirting water, turning on the sirens and generally having fun. Finally, before leaving for the North, more safety equipment was handed out and we were served a delicious school dinner.
Escorting us to the North that afternoon was Dan, another senior officer in the Moldovan fire service. After a three and a half hour drive we reached the town of Edinet, where a summer camp was taking place. After some formalities we then met the firefighters that would be using our equipment. Despite the language barrier we were able to demonstrate how to operate the pumps and other equipment. This was also a good opportunity to make friends and with permission from the mayor, I managed to swap my shirt for a Moldovan fire service one – their uniform is a lot cooler than ours! Brief training session complete and it was finally time to hand the appliances over, one of the Moldovan firefighters was nominated to drive and as I sat in the back, Trevor gave some impromptu driver training. Upon our arrival at Edinet Fire Station I was shocked to see that our appliance would be replacing a 1967 water tanker, the station actually had two of them, but only one had a pump. It was then that I was able to fully appreciate the significance of our journey, and the impact that the donation would have on saving lives in Moldova.