Santa Barbara city firefighter sends rescue missions to Ukraine

Santa Barbara city firefighter sends rescue missions to Ukraine

Project Joint Guardian has sent 15,000 pounds of safety equipment so far

By Nick Welsh | August 18, 2022

RUSSIAN DESTRUCTION: Checking through the rubble | Credit: Project Joint Guardian
Read all the stories in our cover story, “Three Stories of Arriving in Ukraine,” here.

Want to help bombarded Ukrainians get bombarded daily by Putin’s war machine? Fire Captain Isaac Siegel has a very simple suggestion. “Boots,” he said in a recent interview. “We need work boots. Preferably new ones, preferably steel boots. But boots in good condition. Boots.”

By day, Siegel works as a fire captain for the Santa Barbara Fire Department. The rest of his life, however, became pretty much consumed by being the functional equivalent of the CEO of Project Joint Guardian, a new international non-profit organization that helps Ukrainian firefighters and other first responders there to deal with the chaos and carnage that began with Russia’s attack that February and hasn’t stopped since. To date, Project Joint Guardian has sent 21 firefighters and approximately 10,000 pounds of safety equipment to two separate missions in Ukraine. Another – 10 additional firefighters and up to 15,000 pounds of additional equipment – is expected to be sent in September, courtesy of Direct Relief.

Joint Guardian Project firefighters conduct search and rescue operations. | Credit: Courtesy of Oleg Klepach

Ukrainian firefighters and first responders typically wade through the bombed-out, smoldering rubble, searching for survivors, wearing nothing more than tennis shoes, woolen pants and raincoats that are only considered fire-resistant.

“These guys are amazing first responders,” exclaimed Siegel. “They do things we wouldn’t dream of doing.” What is defined as an injury on the job, Siegel noted, is very different in the Ukraine war as opposed to what he saw in his 15 years as a firefighter. “There you are not considered injured if you can still do the job,” he said. “They have a very high casualty and injury rate, especially firefighters.”

This is where the boots come in.

It doesn’t help that the Russian military also targeted first responders in what Siegel described as “double-tap” bombing assaults. The Russians will bomb a school, a hospital, a shopping center or a retirement home. Then they stop, knowing that first responders will be arriving soon. They launch again, this time with the aim of taking out the Ukrainian first responders.

The Joint Guardian project was started by San Diego-based firefighter Eric Hille, appealing for donations of supplies immediately after the Russian invasion. The sender, who had served in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, was looking for firefighters with military experience. Hundreds responded, mostly from the United States, but there were some from Western Australia. The outpouring of donations — “used equipment,” by American standards — from fire departments across the country and Australia, Siegel said, was staggering. Ballistic vests. Helmets. Military-grade personal medical kits for rapid trauma response. Two dozen life jaws kits. Boots. Even a fire truck.

Credit: Project Joint Guardian

The Joint Guardian project sent two missions – each lasting three weeks – although Siegel, who is a supply train logistics graduate and city fire captain, was too essential to be sent overseas . He emphasized that he keeps his volunteer work separate from that of the city of Santa Barbara. “No taxpayer money is used,” he said.

Siegel got involved in part because he’s a firefighter. “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said. It’s also because Siegel is descended from Eastern European Jews – from Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some participated in the Jewish revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of World War II. Many died in the Nazi gas chambers.

Siegel’s parents grew up on the East Coast but met in San Francisco, both big Jefferson Airplane fans. Siegel’s mother became a teacher and his father was a public defender for 37 years. He and a brother became firefighters. He joined the US Forest Service, became one of the almost mythical Hot Shots of the Los Padres National Forest, and 10 years ago joined the Santa Barbara City Fire Department.

“My parents are proud of my work,” Siegel said, “but my mother will always tell me not to sacrifice myself for a tree.” As for his work on behalf of Ukrainian first responders, there is no trace of parental equivocation. “Being Eastern European Jews, they both understand what happens when people do nothing.”

As CEO, Siegel must raise funds. Air fares are not cheap, and gasoline in Ukraine costs between $20 and $40 per gallon. And he handles tax matters, website details, securing Medivac insurance for volunteers, and sending the right people to the right place with the right equipment at the right time. Military experience is essential, Siegel said. Although so far the volunteers have suffered only scrapes and cuts, it is a war zone. And although there were no encounters with the Russian military, Siegel assumes that the Joint Guardian Project volunteers would be treated as hostile agents.

Credit: Project Joint Guardian

It is also essential to have a Ukrainian speaker in each contingent – at least two in each group. Volunteers spend considerable time training their Ukrainian counterparts in the proper use of the equipment they send. “We don’t want it ending up in a warehouse,” Siegel said. Fortunately, it turns out that the Sacramento and San Francisco fire departments have a relatively large number of people of Ukrainian descent.

Siegel was most struck by the unity of the Ukrainian people. “We had heard that there were all these different factions, but that’s 100% false. We don’t meet Russians who speak Ukrainian; we meet Ukrainians.

Regarding reports of Ukrainian anti-Semitism, Siegel said that has also been exaggerated. “It’s there, but no more than here in North America,” he says. “Being ethnically Jewish is my personal motivation, but we are non-denominational. We are here to help our fellow human beings. If it was the Russians who needed help, Siegel said, his crews would also help noncombatants or prisoners of war. “They are human beings.” For more information, visit projectjointguardian.org.

Read all the stories in our cover story, “Three Stories of Arriving in Ukraine,” here.

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