My journey behind the FIRE AID convoys for Ukraine

News, Ukraine

By Oksana Romanukha, founder and director of Impact NGO Ukraine

My life before the morning of February 24, 2022 was made up of a number of different identities. This included being a dedicated road safety expert, founder of Impact NGO Ukraine, and an EASST partner with more than 10 years’ experience. On that morning, after making sure that my children were safe, being Ukrainian stood out more vociferously than anything else. I have always been very active in social initiatives, but this time it was on a bigger scale – a matter of imminent life and death and the existence of my country.

I have always been strongly convinced that the key to the success of any project is cooperation and partnership. Little did I know how vital it would be when my country was being illegally and brutally invaded in the middle of the night!

Within the first few days of the full-scale invasion, our long-term partners from EASST and FIRE AID contacted me and the Ukrainian Emergency Services and initiated a plan to mobilise FIRE AID members to donate four fire engines to help firefighters on the front line. I couldn’t hold back the tears when I learnt that within a week four vehicles had become 18. They had been donated by fire and rescue services across the UK along with thousands of items of equipment and PPE. We were overwhelmed by the response and how everyone wanted to help and support.

With new fire services joining the project every day, ready to help, one small project rapidly became the UK’s biggest ever fire service aid convoy – which was subsequently surpassed by a further five, even larger, convoys of equipment and vehicle donations. As part of the continuous and unwavering support of FIRE AID, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), and UK fire and rescue services with support from the UK Home Office, EASST, the FIA Foundation and the Fire Industry Association over the last 18 months, the following has been donated:

  • 86 fire and rescue vehicles (including 4×4’s, high reach vehicles and fire appliances)
  • Over 190,000 pieces of equipment (including road traffic crash extraction sets, breathing apparatus, helmets, thermal imaging cameras and fire-retardant PPE.)
  • 19 boats.

The first two convoys were the most challenging for the whole team. Before 2022, our typical preparation time for a convoy had been at least 3 months, if not longer. It was a huge amount of work – day and night. Very often I would be sitting with my children in a shelter or basement trying to catch a signal to be able to join coordination calls or answer emails.

At some point my colleagues and I came to the conclusion that this way of work was less effective than it could be, and I made a decision to move temporarily to the UK to be able to do more to help my country. By the time of the third convoy, my then 4-year-old twins were starting their first day of Reception at an English primary school.[1] Despite being in a safe place, all my thoughts were about Ukraine and the ways in which I could be supportive and useful. I took every opportunity to speak about it, meet as many people as possible, establish partnerships, fundraise, and support every initiative focusing on Ukraine.

I have been working with the State Emergency Services of Ukraine (SESU) since 2012. During which time, with the support of EASST and FIRE AID, my NGO was involved in delivering 16 fire and rescue vehicles and 10 training programmes with the aim of improving post-crash response and emergency rescue. At times it was difficult to manage the layers of bureaucracy and maintain ongoing cooperation and partnerships. Yet, we have been grateful for this work since the war started, as our mutual joint efforts in the past have led to a very vibrant and agile relationship with SESU – enabling the delivery of the UK fire service donations to happen so swiftly and efficiently.

Throughout the first four convoys, I was in direct contact with the coordinator of the SESU Humanitarian Hub, Stanislav Rudiy, as well as with the Head of SESU, Serhiy Kruk, and ex-Deputy Minister of Interior, Meri Akopyan. Given the nature, scope and importance of these convoys it was imperative to ensure a highly reliable channel of communication and effective project management on both sides. My role was, among others, to gather up-to-date information on the immediate needs of the fire service and feed this to the UK team to ensure the equipment requests sent to UK fire and rescue services were relevant and useful for Ukraine.

The last year and a half has been filled with strikingly tragic events for all Ukrainians. However, at the same time, it has highlighted some very important things about us as a nation. The donated equipment is now in daily use supporting firefighters, emergency services, and volunteers, battling together on the front line – dealing with fires and other emergencies to protect people and property as the invasion continues to devastate my country and threaten lives.

We couldn’t have made these convoys happen without the incredible hard work of everyone involved. The process of coordinating the convoys, organising logistics, and preparing the donations is no mean feat: with each delivery needing over 60 volunteer drivers, medics, mechanics, customs clearance, insurance, vehicle documentation, fuel, and financing, as well as arrangements to hand over the vehicles and deliver training to local fire fighters on how to operate them.

It has been a true international collaboration, demonstrating the solidarity and camaraderie within the ‘fire family’. I would like to thank all our partners and colleagues for their absolute commitment to making this happen. We are stronger when we are together.

[1] In England, Reception is the first year of primary school.