National Fire Chiefs Council Chair Mark Hardingham reports on the historic journey to Poland to deliver fire equipment to colleagues in Ukraine.
On a cold and beautifully sunny spring morning in March, I arrived at a fire station in Kent to witness the biggest ever UK Fire Service convoy of equipment and fire engines leave for Ukraine.
More than 100 people were on site preparing the fire engines, equipment, PPE and volunteers to start this historic journey to Poland, and then onto Ukraine. All of this to support our firefighter colleagues battling the flames and rescues in their local communities under Russian invasion.
There was a tangible feeling of pride and camaraderie as to what had been achieved in such a short amount of time and a keenness to get the journey underway. This was equally underpinned with the responsibility of the task in hand, and the impact of the shocking scenes we have seen unfold across Ukraine.
To see the 22 fire engines with 60 volunteer firefighters and drivers leaving the fire station for Dover was one of the most impressive sights I have seen in many years. Each fire engine was packed with thousands of items of vital lifesaving kit and equipment for the firefighters and volunteers in Ukraine, all of whom are operating in terrifying and unthinkable conditions.
Every firefighter, member of staff and volunteer involved should be immensely proud of how their amazing work had made this a reality. To be there at the start of its journey, and to wish them well, was incredibly humbling.
This incredible effort was coordinated by the charity FIRE AID and International Development, the National Fire Chiefs Council (through our National Resilience function), UK fire and rescue services and the wider fire industry, through the Fire Industry Association.
The work initially started as a convoy of four vehicles, and quickly grew as fire and rescue services across the country offered to get involved. We thought we would be donating around 5,000 pieces of equipment, but more than 7,000 items were eventually packed and ready to go. This kit and equipment ranged from thermal imaging cameras, generators, lighting, hoses, and thousands of sets of PPE.
On the morning the convoy left, there was so much activity taking place at the fire station: vehicles undergoing final mechanical checks; the superb UK International Search and Rescue (UKISAR) team ensuring all the equipment was fit for purpose, safely packed on board, checked and in good working order; the V5s; double checking customs documents, through to carrying out final welfare checks on the volunteers as they undertook such an important journey.
We were joined by the Fire Minister, Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, and Home Office officials who were keen to talk to the volunteers and pass on their thanks. The deployment of the convoy had been supported throughout by funding from the UK Home Office, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the FIA Foundation. We also received fantastic support from government departments to ensure a smooth passage through the countries as the convoy made its way into Poland, before the Polish authorities took the donations on the final leg of their journey into Ukraine.
I also want to make special mention of Kent Fire and Rescue Service who provided a base as we took over one of their fire stations and provided so much support in the weeks and days running up to the deployment leaving. Without their incredible hard work, I’m not sure the convoy would have made it out of the country so smoothly. And let’s not forget the mechanical support for the journey, provided by Angloco and fire services, ensuring that every fire appliance made it to Ukraine in great working order.
Once the convoy navigated Dover and the Channel, it made its way through France and into Germany. Our European host country fire services provided outstanding hospitality along the way, not only offering rest and respite, but also ensuring the convoy had clear passage through their countries. They ably assisted in ensuring the vehicles had access to petrol stations as they continued on their journey. Refuelling 22 fire engines is no mean feat!
In closing, as the first wheels turned on the convoy’s lead vehicle, I cannot express how proud I was of everyone who came together to support this. From getting the equipment together, the logistics, the volunteering to be part of the journey itself, all through to its safe arrival – every firefighter and volunteer involved should be immensely proud of how their work made this a reality and I’m sure they will have memories for a lifetime.
This is our fire and rescue sector at its absolute best – selflessly working together and supporting one another – ultimately helping and hoping to save lives. But of course, the final word should go to our Ukrainian firefighter colleagues, and we hope that our small gesture goes some way to helping you and your local communities in such terrible circumstances.
“Every firefighter, member of staff and volunteer involved should be immensely proud of how their amazing work had made this a reality”