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Ukraine Fireside Chat Special with Sarah Adamson
Please can you give an overview of work you have been doing in providing aid to Ukraine?
In the latter part of last year, the Fire and Rescue Equipment Services (FRES) council agreed that Angloco, a UK fire appliance manufacturer, were probably the best place to offer the support into FIREAID International Development, a charity which had become the nominated charity for the FIA. FIREAID is a humanitarian aid organisation which delivers fire engines, equipment, and training to developing countries and have a specific requirement.
We were appointed as the link organisation and we started to explore how industry could support the work of the charity. Myself and Alistair Brown, the MD of Angloco had several meetings with the charity. Through this work, we got to know FIRE AID director Claire Hoyland who oversees day-to-day operations. Between us, there were some really positive ideas on how the FIA and the charity could work together in the longer term.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the last few heart-breaking months, the Ukrainian Fire Service have seen 238 fire stations destroyed, 2000 vehicles destroyed, 41 firefighters have lost their lives and 130 have been injured.
In the early days of the conflict, we got in touch with Claire as we were aware the charity had been working in Ukraine for more than a decade. That initial call from us as industry was to the charity, to see if there was anything we could assist with, we knew our colleagues would want to help. At that time, FIRE AID had four fire engines to donate to Ukraine. Over the course of a week, that developed rapidly. We were aware there was work underway with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), who had also asked industry if we could support their efforts to donate kit and equipment.
When we initially started working on the aid convoy, it was fraught with challenges. A convoy of fire aid on this scale had never been done before. Timescales were very tight and we had two weeks to get the convoy out the door to meet the slot available in the aid receiving centre. On the initial convoy, we had twenty-one fire vehicles along with donations of kit and equipment from right across the UK, the quality of the equipment wasn’t consistently high enough. There was a significant amount of sorting required. Within that, some of it was centred around vehicles specifically so we were able to work with the donor organisations to identify spares for their old vehicles, the legacy fleet that they were trying to donate. We were also able to connect with industry. For specific suppliers, I’ll use an example of Supply Plus. Supply Plus we knew would support and help, they wanted their ladders to be serviced before they went out to make sure they were fit for purpose. We were liaising closely with the supply chain to understand what was coming out. If there were four ladders coming out of a particular brigade, we wanted them to be serviced beforehand and included in the best convoy.
The first convoy was a real learning curve because it was a scramble. Simply booking the logistics of seventy hotel rooms in a two-week period, was crazy. A lot of the FIRE AID people were working on the convoy logistics along with the command structure which needed to be put in place, while I was very focused on anything that had a commercial focus to it. This ranged from negotiating and reviewing contracts and rates for services we needed. We had a couple of questions around equipment standards because we were really motivated to ensure that anything that was donated was of a standard that we would use in the UK. It could be end of life and that’s fine, but we needed to ensure nothing was dangerous or no longer serviceable. There were some other challenges, for instance at one point we over-spilled from the fire station in Kent, where we were coordinating the base of operations and we were concerned that we were going to need a short-term warehouse. If you imagine ‘Challenge Anneka’, that’s what it was like for those couple of weeks, it was really full on for the whole team, 7 days a week. We moved into a position of having a real battle rhythm.
The partners that we were working with were the National Chiefs Fire Council, Phil Garrigan was the lead for that ably assisted by Nick Searle from ISAR (International Search and Rescue) and Paul Murphy from NFCC’s National Resilience Team. This provided a communication link into the FRS and the ability to extract people and resources that we needed so we could utilise them. We had all sorts of things being offered and they were able act as an initial filter. I was there for industry, and Claire was the key lead from FIRE AID. The Home Office were also heavily involved and we were pleased to have the support of two people from its team. The Home Office were funding the logistics side of the deployment and the equipment was all donated. You do still need to do things like buy ferry tickets and pay for petrol. All of these kinds of things were all funded by the Home Office.
The logistics for the convoy were a challenge, not only the route but the overnight stopovers, with twenty-one vehicles, we needed three drivers per vehicle so you can see the scale we were dealing with. One of the big challenges we had with Convoy 1 was insurance. The vehicles were all still owned by their respective FRSs, therefore understanding how that risk was managed was useful. On Convoy 1 we decided we needed a mechanic support vehicle. This was due to us starting to see some of the details of the vehicles that we were going to be sending and we weren’t confident that they would necessarily be able to do the long drive without any mechanical issues. Angloco quickly stepped into the convoy and supported with a fully equipped mechanics’ van. There was a roadside breakdown of about 12 hours on that first convoy, so it was great that industry was able to provide this support. As expected, there were a number of little mechanical niggles on the way across the three convoys, therefore mechanical support was essential. As soon as people know what we were working on, so many rapidly offered to help. The convoy made its way across France into Belgium, right through Germany into Poland. The teams travelled right down and really close to the Ukrainian border to a drop-off point. At that point, we hand over to Ukraine through the State Fire Service of Poland. A huge effort from many countries who all shared our unified goal, to support the firefighters of Ukraine.
There was a substantial amount of paperwork to navigate through. We had a lady from HMRC called Heather, who was amazing and a customs agent that she worked with, and his company donated time and they worked for hours on it. Their primary role was in the Brexit opportunities team, and they needed to make a special arrangement with the French to ensure that we could transition this humanitarian aid and it was a diplomatic success. The French team and ours worked really closely together to ensure anything relating to export controls were covered.
There were numerous complexities regarding the donation of aid. I felt having a team with blended backgrounds made assessment and acceptance of risk more rigorous and enabled us to keep the teams and those involved safe and compliant with relevant regulations. The important thing in all of this is that it was truly collaborative and we were a team. Every day at 8.30 am for the last eight and a half weeks including Saturdays and Sundays, we had a strategic team meeting. We’ve communicated at that point every day, some days we’ve met again at 6 pm. By the end of it, we’ve ensured everybody knows what their job is, everybody knows what the capabilities of each other’s organisations are. I don’t recall a project where we’ve all sat at the table and really worked together on something with a common goal. That’s my learning from this, creating that successful team to achieve something to make a difference to others in a time of intense darkness, while creating a team who can achieve getting 60 fire engines half-way across a continent in a period of 8 weeks was just phenomenal.
We’ve had hundreds of volunteers driving these vehicles, we’ve had Claire working diplomatically right across Europe, we’ve received support from embassies. There have been some real moments of crisis, but they’ve been well managed. It’s been a victory for collaboration and genuinely believe it wouldn’t have happened if one of those organisations hadn’t been working with us. We needed them all.
How did you become involved in this?
I became involved in all of this from an FIA perspective through a conversation about how we managed this. Because the project was being led by FIRE AID , they were the lead agency. Angloco had that relationship with the charity and agreed that I could be made available and funded my time initially. Angloco released me to be solely available for this project. We realised that having a single point of contact for industry to work through would be most efficient. Ian Moore spoke to wider industry colleagues and the other industry bodies and asked: “Are you intent that we funnel all this through one person?” This was agreed and we just got on with it. We were aware that there were lots of offers coming in from different areas, along with a lot of questions about the project. People wanted to know if they could contribute, some of them wanted to stick a bit of cash in, others wanted to donate equipment. We donated something in the range of 8000 sets of firefighting PPE. We had to work out what to prioritise. It was wonderfully humbling to see the kindness of large parts of our sector trying to help.
We were constantly working with the Ukrainian Government on what they needed as well. We had a weekly updated list of what they were asking for and we were trying to make it very focused, which was primarily, fire engines and long reach ladders. Their standard ladders are 9 meters and we have 13.5 meters, so we shipped those over.
Is this an ongoing project and how long do you envisage this to last?
We’ve delivered, what I believe, is our last convoy, Convoy 3. They handed it over on Monday the 9th of May to the Polish and the vehicles on Tuesday the 10th of May. We mustn’t forget we also sent an aid train too, filled with equipment. We have seen news footage of these vehicles fighting fires across Ukraine, so we know that they are working.
We know how to do a good convoy. What I would really like us to see is aid budget being spent on British products to export. There are low-cost aid solutions that we can provide. We have access to - not brand-new fire engines - but we could manufacture a high volume of equipment relatively rapidly if it was prioritised as a budget. Therefore, we could easily do a convoy of new aid that might be more useful in the rebuild. We’re talking as a group about how we formalise the mechanism for delivering aid in the future. That could be humanitarian aid following conflict or humanitarian aid following a disaster, using the same framework for delivery. I also think regarding international development, this is clearly an area where there is a desire to help people from within the fire service, which if I’m honest, I think we already knew.
This work is far from done, just last week Ian Moore, Alistair Brown and I met with officials from Ukraine, representatives from the State Fire Service of Poland, German Fire Brigade, the National Fire Chiefs Council, HM Government, and FIRE AID to discuss our work– and to look at further ways of working together. It was great that the Home Secretary Priti Patel could also meet with the delegation in the House of Commons. She pledged the government will do all it can to continue to help. We also met with both the new Fire Minister Sarah Dines and the former Fire Minister Lord Greenhaugh and they joined the group to ensure that vital continuity. The outcome of that meeting was that a joint communique was agreed that commits all parties that would work together to deliver humanitarian aid.
I had a chat with one of the Angloco team who went on the convoy as mechanical support and we were discussing how he felt about it, he said “It was a nightmare, but if you needed me to go again tomorrow then I’d drive there in a shot. If you needed me to drive in reverse because that’s the only way I’d get there, then I’d do it wouldn’t I?” and this was the spirit we had in the teams that travelled through Europe to as close to the war as we could get them. That’s it, it’s not something anybody wants to do, but if we need to do it and our help is needed, we will.
This project has been all-consuming. I feel that it is the start of something now, rather than the end.
Is there anyone else involved that you haven’t mentioned?
In terms of organisations, there’s obviously FIRE AID, the Home Office, NFCC and the FIA. Regarding the industry, we have a number of people that have been incredibly supportive. Angloco has gone above and beyond, mainly because I think, they just feel it’s the right thing to do. The same for Supply Plus and Babcock have been brilliant, supporting two convoys with their mechanics. There were also individuals from outside our industry without whom we couldn’t have done this. For example, DFDS seaways directors were amazing when there were commercial challenges from their competitors and the first convoy was at risk. Sincerely I can’t thank them enough for their can-do approach. If there’s been something that we’ve needed I’ve felt that the industry has always helped me if they could. I really felt like I was just the mouthpiece for a sector who were trying to do all they could. You realise that when you start talking about Ukraine, suddenly everybody else asks what they can do and that’s been lovely. Ian Moore has also been great and really supportive throughout the project.
Where are the fire engines now?
The vehicles are now in operation across Ukraine. From Convoy 1, some of those vehicles are already on the front line, a couple of the newer vehicles have been kept back and transferred into left-hand drive and they’ve been placed in fire stations around the country ready to replace vehicles that have been sent to the front line. All of that equipment is starting to be distributed and used. I think it’s going to be a long-haul here and they are going to need to keep that supply moving.
Most of those vehicles went fully kitted with coupling converters so the moment they get there, they literally plug into the Ukrainian water system, they can be filled up and be operational, straight away. From an industry perspective, little touches make a big difference. We’ve put a sticker in each of the vehicles with the phone number of Angloco, so that if any of those vehicles break down and they want some advice, they can phone our 24-hour service centre. It might be that there’s a quick fix that we can offer, it might be that we can get a part. On Convoy 3, we took out a part for Convoy 2 as one of the vehicles had an issue. Over the phone we diagnosed the fault and sent a part to repair it. It’s not just about delivering the equipment and running away. We have developed a relationship and we are keen to help in any way we can.
What’s the impact of the equipment that you’ve delivered?
We’ve donated approximately 10,000 items of equipment. We have sent things such as first responder vests, cutting gear, generators, lighting, PPE and helmets, mass decontamination equipment and around 100 ladders. We have sent whatever we had and if we had a capability offered to us, we checked whether it was wanted. Foam firefighting equipment and hose laying equipment was offered and accepted. I don’t think it's easy to quantify the impact of the equipment. I just hope it has helped.
What does Ukraine need from us as an industry and how can we get involved?
Firstly, from a trade perspective, people should make sure that they’re linked into the submissions which have gone back to the department for international trade. If a requirement specifically comes through that route, our teams that are working in government know and understand how they can procure it.
Secondly, from a donation perspective, if people have got large stocks of equipment that they want to donate to Ukraine, I would still be really interested to hear from them. If we don’t send it to Ukraine, then the charity might send it somewhere else. That link with the donation is important. Financially FIRE AID is a charity that relies on donations, so if people can financially support it, it helps.
I’m really happy to be contacted by anybody who thinks they’ve got equipment to send or would like more advice on who to contact, to either offer more support to Ukraine specifically or to FIRE AID or to become more involved. The work that they do is really amazing.
Throughout the project, I was sitting in my little office on my driveway, working on conveying this equipment. I am a million miles away from the trauma that the Ukrainian people are experiencing. I knew and appreciated I am really privileged to be sitting in my home with my family knowing they’re all safe. My husband is a firefighter. Many of the firefighters that we are all trying to help will have wives like me in Ukraine, who all they want is for their husbands to be safe. If I can do anything to help them, of course I will. I feel like you’d have to have a really good reason not to do all you could, wouldn’t you?
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