Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on April 25, 2022.

Under Fire

On the eve of yet another punishing Russian offensive, a top-ranking official with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine talks to NFPA Journal about the realities faced by firefighters in a war zone


Listen to General Demchuck on The NFPA Podcast, as well as a Canadian firefighter who founded the organization Firefighter Aid Ukraine, which since 2015 has delivered many tons of much-needed equipment to Ukrainian responders.

Not long ago, 
cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Bucha were just dots on the map, faraway locations that most of us had no connection to and knew little or nothing about. Today, these and many other cities in Ukraine have become household names, ever-present reminders of war and brutality.

Since late February, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its Western neighbor, images of the destruction in Ukraine have become inescapable and increasingly horrific. They include urban skylines outlined by blackened, bombed-out residential towers; pregnant women trapped underneath the rubble of a maternity hospital following a missile attack; a nuclear power plant engulfed by fire following a Russian attack; and the bodies of dead civilians left face-down on a rural road in the wake of a withdrawal by Russian forces.

But other images have emerged that capture the resilience and perseverance of a nation fighting back against a bigger, better-equipped aggressor. Many of these images even include a spark of inspiration: rescuers from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SES) risking their lives to save others.The emergency service, which numbers 60,000 responders across the country, has toiled for two months under unimaginable conditions. They battle fires, dig through the rubble of ruined buildings in search of survivors, clear landmines, and recover the dead—all while being shot at and shelled by Russian forces. More than 30 have been killed in action since the start of the war, according to SES. At least five members have been taken prisoner, and nearly 100 have been injured

The enormity of their task cannot be overstated. As of mid-April, at least 75,000 civilian structures have been destroyed in bombings across the country, including tens of thousands of residences and hundreds of schools, hospitals, libraries, and cultural buildings, according to the Kyiv School of Economics, which tracks the damage. As of April 18, the United Nations had confirmed the deaths of nearly 2,000 Ukrainian civilians, though the actual number, the organization admits, is “likely to be considerably higher.” Indeed, regional officials have claimed that as many as 22,000 civilians may have already died in the battered city of Mariupol alone.

On April 20, as Russian forces massed for what appeared to be another major assault on Eastern Ukraine, I spoke with a top SES official, General Volodymyr Demchuk, director of the service’s Emergency Response Department. He provided a stirring overview of the daily challenges his firefighters and rescuers face from the onslaught of war, and what additional resources are needed as the conflict enters its next phase.

General Demchuk spoke through a translator from a studio in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for speaking to me. What is the current situation faced by the Ukrainian State Emergency Service?

Our country consists of 25 regions. Yesterday [April 19], three of those regions were hit by missiles by the occupiers. Each day, at least a couple of regions in our country are hit by Russian forces. We have around 300 units involved in responding to emergencies daily, which unfortunately includes missile strikes on many civilian structures as well as huge industrial facilities. All of our rescuers and service members are on duty every single day and have been since the beginning.

What roles do SES rescuers play in the war response?

Since February 24, when the full-scale invasion by Russian forces began, we have put out more than 6,600 fires that have resulted from the war. Apart from firefighting, we have been designated to dismantle debris and rescue people who are trapped. Today, work is going on in four regions to search for people trapped under the rubble. Since the start of the invasion, our services have rescued more than 800 people. They have also removed the dead bodies of 897 people from the ruined buildings.

Our service also has the task of demining—clearing explosive objects. In total, since February 24, our demining units have cleared more than 12,000 hectares [46 square miles] of territory in Ukraine and removed more than 70,000 pieces of ordnance. Unfortunately, the work to clear our territory of mines will go on for a very long time.

Finally, our units provide assistance to citizens, providing them with water and food supplies, even in the dangerous regions.

What toll has this all taken on responders? What are their daily lives like?

The occupiers, in spite of international law and conventions, hit and shell our rescuers and destroy SES buildings and vehicles. Despite the very difficult situation and constant shelling, our rescuers work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even though they are not at the forefront of military action, they are under constant threat of attack. All the work they do is done under constant danger to their lives. But our rescuers have resilience and are always ready to fulfill their task.

I’ve been told that Russian troops have specifically targeted Ukraine’s emergency responders. Have your personnel been intentionally targeted as they work?

All of the 33 rescuers, in the moment they were killed, were fulfilling their assigned task. They died from shelling and bullets. This includes rescuers who died doing the work of demining. We have no doubts about saying that these staff members were murdered.

Fire stations, trucks, and many other pieces of equipment have been destroyed. How do those losses affect your ability to conduct rescue and fire operations?

In total, 123 fire stations have been destroyed due to the Russian invasion. More than 300 fire vehicles have been completely or partially damaged. These losses have had a negative impact on our ability to fulfill our tasks. We continue to do our work regardless, but we need support from our international partners. We very much hope for this support.

What are your biggest needs right now?

Our priority needs are vehicles for the demining units. We also need equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests for outfitting our demining units. In addition, due to active engagement of our units, we have a priority need for firefighter protective clothes and we very much need fire trucks.

Because of the constant threat that the Russian Federation will use chemical weapons on Ukraine, we have an urgent need for breathing and eye protection. We need newer equipment for monitoring chemical weapons use.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after a chemical warehouse was hit by Russian shelling on the eastern frontline near Kalynivka village.  GETTY IMAGES

I’ve read that hundreds of people across the country have volunteered to help SES. How many personnel do you have today, compared to the start of the war?

Today the staff for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine stands at around 60,000 rescuers. In addition, during the last two weeks more than 10,000 volunteers have shown their desires to help us do this work. And we are working to increase the number of demining units.

After more than seven weeks of responding to horrific incidents in the middle of a war zone, how would you describe the overall morale of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service today?

Our rescuers are ready to fulfill every assigned task despite the danger to their lives. They are completely ready. All the rescuers are located in their designated places and continue to carry out their tasks. Every one of them understands that each contribution they make is a part of the general contribution to the continued existence of our country.

The operational logistics of coordinating such a large, complex response across such a large country seems daunting. How have you managed the situation?

Despite the challenges, the management of our system is stable. We have constant communication with our management bodies and our units, and if any interruption of communication does happen, we do our best to renew the line of communication. Logistically, in territory under the Ukrainian army’s control, we do not face big issues. On the other hand, in the territory that is Russian-occupied, we are unable to bring in any additional equipment or staff.

SES has said that as many as 3,500 Ukrainian responders are now in Russian-occupied territories. Are you in contact with them? Have they been allowed to carry on their work?

Yes, we are in contact with many of these units, but not all of them. According to the information we receive from the units, they are not always allowed to fulfill their duties. There are also plenty of cases where Russia captured and took our vehicles.

You mentioned the urgent needs you have for trucks and equipment. Have you begun to see governments and aid organizations supplying that equipment, or are you still waiting?

We have already received some support and delivery of goods from many international partners. The European partners and members of the European Union are probably the most active.

Rescuers dismantle the rubble of a house that was destroyed by Russian shillings in the city of Borodianka, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.  GETTY IMAGES

Responders around the world have been paying close attention to the situation in Ukraine and the efforts of your organization. How can they help SES?

I would ask that you do not stop your support of Ukraine, because we need it very much right now. I want to express my gratitude for all of the support we get from the international community, including help from volunteers from the United States working in the Kyiv region to dismantle debris. Such support provides us with the feeling that we will win. It is only with the help and support from the international community that we can win.

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor of NFPA Journal. This interview was made possible with logistical support from the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF), a global organization with the mission of working to better understand and continuously improve the working conditions for firefighters throughout the world.