East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service’s Inclusion & Diversity Officer was hand-picked to support new community fire safety initiatives in Lebanon.
Lebanon, host to over 1 million refugees is no stranger to Middle Eastern Conflict. Many refugees are women and children displaced into another country fleeing war and conflict. Refugee poverty and overcrowding are major concerns and known high risk factors for Fire.
Nicky Thurston, who has worked for the Service for the past 15 years was invited by Operation Florian, a humanitarian charity under the umbrella of Fire Aid to support preventative work in the region.
Historically, Operation Florian has focused on providing equipment and training to Fire Services in other developing countries to support sustainable and improved respond to emergencies, but the charity wanted to branch into supporting the prevention of incidents. Prevention work by UK Fire Services has been extremely successful in reducing the number of injuries from fire and fire related deaths.
Nicky said: “One of the many great things about the UK fire Service is its ability to understand the value of engagement in the prevention of fire. The Service believes that experiences such as this helps develop new and exciting skills and perspectives for its staff.”
Nicky first became involved after a chance meeting at a ‘Women in the Fire Service’ development weekend, where Board Member of Operation Florian, Bruce Hoad, was promoting the value of women in humanitarian work. This is where she found out about Operation Florian.
An advocate for #HeforShe activities, Nicky was delighted Bruce was there promoting the value of women in humanitarian work. He told me about Florian and I knew I wanted to help; the only question was how?
Costs such as flights were paid for by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the whole team gave their time and knowledge for free.
“But what has all this great work got to do with me and, more importantly, Operation Florian? Most of what Operation Florian does, to my knowledge, is operational but I am not a firefighter.
“Save the Children Lebanon and several other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) were increasingly concerned about the situation and rightly so. The number of fires in Lebanon is disproportionately high to an already extremely vulnerable community. The number of refugees in the country, had created a unique situation and the risk is alarming. This is how the ‘Train the Trainer Community Engagement Workshop’ idea gained momentum.
“The excitement was both exhilarating and nerve wracking – it was, and still is, amazing to me just how much it got under my skin. It soon seemed there was a real possibility to deliver the workshop and that I could be going to Lebanon as part of the project. To Beirut, for goodness sake - my family thought I was working too hard and possibly losing the plot!
“I shared the proposal with my employer, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS), and looked for their support. They gave it wholeheartedly, having worked with Operation Florian on a number of fire-related humanitarian projects. Although I would be sponsored by Save the Children ESFRS assisted with necessary time off. Our memorandum of understanding with ESFRS allows for some compensatory leave to be granted, but only a part. East Sussex’s support demonstrated their belief that every life is worthy and that, where resources permit, the fire service’s purpose to “keep our communities safer” transcends both county and country.
“By mid-June 2017, I found myself in the very privileged position of having a workplace and family who supported what I wanted to do. At times, the thought of being able to work towards building relationships with people to help them identify risk and put in place preventative measures was quite overwhelming. Ultimately, we were going to save lives with this project and this was an enormous responsibility and a great privilege.”
The proposal consisted of several modules, delivered by two enthusiastic teams and Nicky was reassured of their capability of delivering a first-class training programme.
Following the approval from the UNHCR, who funded the project, we were touching down in Beirut.
Nicky added: “The decision to have a primarily female team was essential – if we were to engage with those most vulnerable to death and injury from fire. Cultural differences mean men often are the beneficiaries of knowledge in the community we needed to ensure women could be given the opportunity to learn and it is unlikely that a man would be able to talk to women and children. They are the ones left in the camps when the men go to work. Our fire safety messages have to reach those most vulnerable, hence the requirement for a predominantly female team.
“Lebanon has taken more than a million refugees since the crisis began and more arrive daily. It is a desperate situation. Fires occur frequently and even on the day we arrived, the BBC world news reported another fire. The headline reading: “Fire destroys 100 tents at Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon”. We later learn that this included child fatalities. The following day another, 19 tents are destroyed. This time, there was some intervention but one child was trapped in the inferno, burnt alive by a falling tyre that had been placed on the roof.
“The impact of these very recent events was overwhelming; as our trainers arrived for the course, many were exhausted from the previous day’s activities and dealing with the consequences of the two fires. Yet, they were enthusiastic and engaged, absorbing information like sponges.
“During an agreed meeting with some of the women in one camp, we experienced the impact of regional culture and learned that there is great scope (and need) to offer prevention initiatives and that the women and children are key. As a result of what we had been able to share with our Master Trainers and communities, I hope, if nothing else, we began to sow seeds of change. Only time will tell how well they were planted.
“For me personally, this has been an experience that I never expected to have, and from which I have gained so much. The refugees may be poor but they have community. This is invaluable because, with the right information and support, it is communities that make each other safer and the risk of fire can be avoided.
“This trip has changed the way I look at things. I am humbled by my experience; acutely aware of the resources I have taken for granted. For example, the smoke alarms in my home there to keep me and my loved ones safer. Since my return, I do check these regularly, now appreciating just how incredibly fortunate I am to live somewhere my fire service provides them and acutely aware of my own behaviour change.
“I also realise you don’t have to be an expert in something or have a wealth of resources, by just being prepared to be contribute no matter how small, you can make a difference. There is always a fellow human being who has a little bit less than you, and this might be experience, knowledge, opportunity or resource - the feeling immeasurable, the reward beyond value, because ultimately the reward is safer, human life.”