When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the world watched in horror. But it did not take long for humanitarian efforts to kick in to help people in the country and, as usual, fire services from around the world were in the vanguard of these efforts. Technology Correspondent Andrew Chilvers looks at a proud tradition of fire services around the world supporting each other.
When major disasters occur, no matter where it is, the response from firefighters comes from around the world.
Last August year, search and rescue crews from Fairfax County Fire and Rescue in the US travelled to Haiti to aid the rescue effort after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake had hit the island.
The urban search and rescue team joined their counterparts from Haiti on the ground to conduct search and rescue operations. The team comprised 65 first responders and search dogs. In addition, about 52,000 pounds of equipment went with the team, which included saws, drills, torches, medical equipment and specialist concrete breaking tools.
Fairfax County Fire and Rescue also sent five members of staff to provide technical assistance to the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team.
Fire crews from the US had previously reacted quickly when a large earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Elsewhere, in August last year firefighters from several countries in Europe headed to Greece to help their counterparts combatting wildfires that were raging on the island of Evia.
In the north of the island, firefighters from Romania, Serbia and Ukraine went to the fire zone near Istiaia, becoming part of an 850-strong firefighting force that was also aided by more than a dozen helicopters dropping water bombs. The teams’ hard work paid off as they managed to create firebreaks around the town, saving it from potential destruction.
“For us, this is about more than just helping firefighters in a time of desperate need. It is also about helping friends and colleagues who have found themselves on the frontline of a war”
Around Greece there were more than 500 wildfires burning during August, which were fuelled by a combination of temperatures in excess of 45 degrees, strong winds and tinder-dry ground and vegetation.
Nine planes, 200 firefighting vehicles and just under 1,000 firefighters came from EU countries, including from as far away as Sweden.
Firefighters from around Europe also helped to tackle fires raging in the Peloponnese region in the south of Greece.
At the time, the EU mobilised what it called ‘one of Europe’s biggest-ever common firefighting operations’ to help Greece and other countries affected by wildfires at the time, including Italy and Russia. Fire teams from Israel, Switzerland and the UK also helped with the response. More than 1,300 firefighters and 14 planes equipped to fight fire were sent to the Mediterranean.
Australia in New Zealand
Australian firefighters have also been quick to assist their colleagues in other countries when disaster strikes, notably in February 2011 when the first response teams were deployed just 12 hours after an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude hit Christchurch.
Watch Commander Mark Andrews and kit for Ukraine
Three Australian teams, including seven firefighters from ACT Fire and Rescue among their number, were initially sent to the relief effort. An Australian urban search and rescue team, with four firefighters in it, were first on the scene, helping with search and rescue operations by clearing buildings in designated blocks.
“The EU mobilised what it called ‘one of Europe’s biggest-ever common firefighting operations’ to help Greece and other countries affected by wildfires”
One member of the second team that was deployed, which helped with the recovery of the community, Col O’Rourke, described the landscape as a “war zone”.
The work the teams undertook was dangerous as they had to contend with more than 200 aftershocks. But there were no fatalities and no one even suffered an injury in their deployment, which was testament to their training and professionalism.
While the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011 was smaller in magnitude than the one that hit the Canterbury region the previous year – 6.3 magnitude compared to 7.1 – it caused much greater devastation and resulted in the deaths of 185 people. The reason the second earthquake was so deadly is that the first had weakened the structure of many buildings, leaving them less able to withstand the tremors of the next.
The main role of the third Australian team, which arrived in New Zealand slightly later than the first two, was to help coordinate the relief and recovery efforts. Here, their USAR skills, developed in domestic disasters such as the Thredbo landslide and the Canberra bushfires of 2003, proved invaluable. But those who were part of the team said the destruction they witnessed was on a scale unlike any other they had seen, which made coordinating relief efforts that much more difficult.
Convoy to Ukraine
Fire services from around the country have been helping to provide aid and equipment to their counterparts in Ukraine, building on a proud history of stepping up when disaster strikes around the world.
After a call went out from the UK’s Home Office and National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) for fire equipment that was planned to be replaced or decommissioned to be donated to their counterparts in Ukraine, the response was swift.
On March 19, a team of 60 volunteers from across the UK set out on a three-day mission to deliver 22 vehicles, among them fire engines and trucks packed with an array of lifesaving equipment. All headed to Poland.
From there, Polish firefighters ensured that the desperately needed kit made it to towns and cities in Ukraine.
Equipment for Ukraine
Mercedes appliance donated by Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service
Meanwhile, Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service was just one of many fire services that donated a fire engine for the cause, with Station Commander Paul Roberts and Watch Commander Mark Andrews travelling to Ukraine alongside Crew Commander Wendy Valleley of Kent Fire and Rescue Service.
Paul said: “Throughout the journey we had travelled through five countries, covered more than 1,000 miles, maintained an average speed of 29mph and delivered the biggest single donation of emergency vehicles ever organised from the UK, an incredible response from the whole sector.
“Mark, Wendy and I are proud and honoured to have had the opportunity to play our part in such an important relief expedition which we hope will help save the lives of people in Ukraine.”
A little later in April another convoy of 21 vehicles left Ashford in Kent containing fire engines and firefighting equipment from all over the UK heading to Poland. The donated gear included helmets, rescue kit and thermal imaging cameras – all vital for Ukrainian firefighters working in areas that had been shelled by Russian forces.
UK charity Fire Aid played a leading role in organising the convoys and kept up regular communication with Ukrainian counterparts and the state emergency services. The convoys were supported with funding from the Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office and FIA Foundation.
Providing Life Saving Services
With Ukrainian fire services reportedly suffering huge losses and damage to their equipment by the day, the donations were vital to help them to continue to provide life-saving services.
By mid-April, more than 100 fire stations and some 250 fire engines had been destroyed in Ukraine, according to the NFCC. It is likely that number has increased significantly since then as the conflict has continued.
Home Secretary Priti Patel praised the “phenomenal collaborative effort” of the project, adding: “Our fire and rescue services are going above and beyond to support the effort in Ukraine.”
As the conflict has ground on since April, so has the aid; another 20-strong convoy left the UK on May 5. This included equipment from West Midlands Fire Service, among others. It also included a mechanics team, provided by the fire sector, to give support to ensure it made it safely to Poland.
Cab trio - first trip
Arrival of fire appliance in Ukraine
Claire Hoyland, Fire Aid Project Manager, said: “When we started collecting equipment six weeks ago, I could never have imagined the scale of the response. Everybody wanted to help. The deployment of 60 vehicles has been an incredible achievement by all involved but I must acknowledge our Fire Aid members, EASST and Kent Fire and Rescue who have been working in Ukraine now for ten years.
“The relationships that we have built up with in this time have been critical to the successful deployment of these convoys. For us, this is about more than just helping firefighters in a time of desperate need. It is also about helping friends and colleagues who have found themselves on the frontline of a war.”
“With Ukrainian fire services reportedly suffering huge losses and damage to their equipment by the day, the donations were vital to help them to continue to provide life-saving services”
The effort to help Ukraine is just the latest in a proud history of UK fire and rescue services helping their colleagues overseas when disaster strikes.
Back in March 2011, a team of six from West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s Technical Rescue Unit travelled to Japan to help people who had been affected by the huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami that had devastated areas of the country.
The team headed there as part of the UK’s rescue response, along with other firefighters and doctors.
Two members of the West Sussex Technical Rescue Unit team that went to Japan had only just returned to the UK from New Zealand, having been part of the rescue team after the earthquake that had affected that country in February of the same year.
In addition, Roy Wilsher, then chief fire officer at Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and director of operations response for the Chief Fire Officers Association, also headed out to Japan, leading the UK’s International Search and Rescue Team (UKISAR). Wilsher, along with a team of about 60 people assisted with the search for survivors after the disaster, which saw an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit the country, followed by a huge tsunami.
In an article for the NFCC, Wilsher reflected on the response to the disaster ten years on, saying that that it was on a scale that he had never seen before. After his arrival, Wilsher and his team undertook seven days of intensive work and support where they searched for survivors from first light until dusk every day.
The UKISAR comprised firefighters and officers from services in Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Mid and West Wales, West Midlands, Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex. All bought their own expertise; Hampshire had base of operations knowledge and West Midlands and Greater Manchester provided team leaders in Sean Moore and Peter Stephenson respectively.
Once on the ground, the UKISAR team, alongside colleagues from the US and China, searched designated planning zones, checking buildings for any signs of life – search dogs played an important role in this. If signs of life were found, the team concentrated their efforts with specialist tools that can cut through concrete and metal to get to victims. They also used equipment to temporarily shore up a structure.
While the devastation was such that the mission was more about recovering the deceased, this was very important as it gave relatives the chance to lay their loved ones to rest in their own traditions.
These examples show that the UK fire and rescue services are always ready to respond to disasters wherever they may be – and will continue to do so in the future.
It is worth noting, the UK Fire and Rescue Service does not just help international colleagues in times of disaster, it also regularly provides equipment and assistance to other nations.
Back in 2012, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service donated a redundant fire engine, along with a range of equipment and kit to firefighters in Kathmandu City in Nepal. The equipment included breathing apparatus, portable pumps and hydraulic equipment, among other items.
While the fire engine was not fit for purpose for Tyne and Wear, it was still an upgrade on the resources the firefighters in Kathmandu were working with.
Meanwhile in June 2019, a team of five volunteers from the Staffordshire Emergency Services Humanitarian Aid Association travelled to Belarus to donate two fire appliances to counterparts from Tajikistan.
The appliances were filled with equipment, donated by Fire Aid member, the Scottish Emergency Rescue Organisation, and included two road traffic collision sets designed to help extricate road collision victims quickly and improve their chance of survival. This was to help reduce the number of traffic fatalities in the country, which averaged more than 1,500.
“Our fire and rescue services are going above and beyond to support the effort in Ukraine”
It is not just overseas aid to partners in war zones or that have experienced natural disasters that the UK Fire and Rescue Service provides, there is also charitable work.
One example of this is Operation Florian, which was set up in 1995 after the war in the former Yugoslavia. Operation Florian is a UK Fire Service humanitarian charity that promotes the protection of life among communities in need across the world.
During the past 25 years and more Operation Florian has delivered large numbers of life-saving equipment to areas in need and also provided training and education. One significant example of the latter was the ‘Soldiers to Saviours’ project in Neum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which trained demobbed soldiers to become firefighters.
The organisation also looks to build links with related partners across the world and establish long-term relationships and provide support on an ongoing basis. For instance, in Macedonia in 2007 an Operation Florian team went to three areas to institute training plans. This was followed in 2008 by a project there involving several UK fire and rescue service operations. In the years since, several more visits have occurred, including in November 2021, when three fire appliances were donated.
Local Resilience Forums
In addition to the charitable work around the globe that occurs, much is done on a local level in this country in local resilience forums (LRFs), which were first brought in under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.
Local resilience forums’ aim to develop multi-agency plans to address threats and risks that exist at local and national levels. When a major incident occurs in an area, the LRF coordinates the response with other local agencies to ensure a coordinated, partnership approach.
The LRFs comprise Category One responders such as councils, the emergency services, Environment Agency and NHS England, which are supported by Category Two responders of the likes of Highways England, charities, faith groups and utility companies.
“The LRF not only leads in responding to and recovery from the effects of emergencies, it also is a great source of learning and development and exchanging vital information to help keep communities safe both in disaster and day-to-day,” says Steve Owen-Hughes, Chief Fire Officer of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, and chief of Surrey’s LRF.
“Surrey’s Local Resilience Forum held an exercise ‘Operation COMET’ just last month to rehearse, practice and learn from a major incident with partners – and these can be anything from flooding to pandemic to terrorism.
“Covid-19 has enabled Surrey’s LRF to be at the forefront of protecting people and communities – we’ve worked closely as partners even our military colleagues throughout the 18 months and in recovery phases.”
Additional reporting by Fire and Rescue Correspondent Sophie Read.