Celebrating 20 years of International Fire and Rescue Association helping emergency services overseas
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The International Fire and Rescue Association (IFRA), set up by retired Lochgelly firefighter David Kay OBE has just reached the end of its 20th anniversary year.
It works to help emergency services in countries affected by war or civil unrest, helping provide vehicles, equipment and training to ensure they can continue saving lives.
Over the last two decades, the team of volunteers with IFRA have sent 107 vehicles to 24 countries around the world, along with 78 containers of equipment.
They have carried out 74 training missions, formed four fire services, hosted three UK training academies and the charity has been awarded the Queen’s Award.
Reflecting on the work of the charity over the last 20 years, David said: “It’s had its ups and downs over the years. It started off slowly, but then it picked up pace after the first few years and has become the biggest charity of its kind in Scotland and the second largest in Britain.
“Back in 1999 I drove a van of aid in convoy to Bosnia after the war for an Edinburgh charity. While we were there I was shocked by the conditions the fire fighters were working in.
“They had ancient appliances and little or no equipment to keep themselves safe.
“I spoke to the fire chief about what was needed. He said they needed a lightweight vehicle, a 4x4, something that wouldn’t set off the land mines.
"And that’s how it all started.”
David rallied friends and neighbours and formed a fundraising committee on his return home, and by May 2002 he had raised enough funds to buy an Isuzu Trooper, which was fitted with equipment and driven to Kljuc in Bosnia.
From there, IFRA was born with the charity registered in September 2002.
"Believe it or not, it was just a constant stream of requests from other countries for help after that,” said David.
“It’s been non stop ever since. It’s been a steady stream of sending container after container of useful equipment to different countries over the years, and it costs around £15k to send a container.
"We’ve been fortunate enough to have vehicles, including fire engines and ambulances, donated too.
"The need outgrew our expectations really quickly.
“The requests come in thick and fast and we have to assess where the best place to send it to is.”
Although initially Bosnia was a focus for IFRA after David’s visit, the charity has gone on to provide support to services all across the world over the years.
Their equipment and training has helped in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Romania, Cuba, Turks and Caicos Islands, Paraguay, Albania, Liberia, Namibia, Panama, Kashmir, Argentina, Moldova, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Chile, Palestine, Mexico, Ecuador, Sierra Leone, Philippines, US Virgin Islands and Ukraine.
David explained the reason for wanting to help those fire and emergency services abroad in the first place.
He said: “I was shocked to start with by how the firefighters were working with very little, or basic, equipment.
"We are very lucky in the UK to have emergency services that are very well trained and supported. Other countries are not that lucky.
"Many are not funded by the government so they don’t have help to ensure they have the top safety equipment that we are fortunate enough in this country.
"When you go on holiday abroad you just have it in your head that the fire service are there and you can call them if you need them, but that’s not always the case.
"Even in most countries in Europe the fire service is not like it is here. Often they are volunteer services that are not there all the time and there may by a delay in getting to you, and they certainly don’t always have such high spec equipment.”
IFRA is not just about helping fire services abroad, it supports other emergency services too by collecting any outdated, superseded, spare or replaced fire/emergency/medical service equipment that can be sent abroad.
With no government funding, IFRA relies on the goodwill of the public and the support of many private companies and organisations across Scotland and the UK to be able to do what it does.
The chairman of the charity continues: “It’s everything from boots to fire engines and everything in between. It’s all really needed.
"We’ll take anything that would be useful in an emergency to help save lives.
"Often it’s equipment that will no longer be used in this country, but which is still useful and safe to use in other countries.
"For example when equipment is being replaced and updated, but is still functional and has a use, there’s no need for these things to be ditched as they can still be used to save lives.
"We have been to countries where we have seen firefighters running into a burning building with just a builder’s hat, overalls and flip flops. They just don’t have access to the same safety equipment that we have here.
"We rely on donations of equipment from private companies and organisations. It’s not just our fire service that can help, but the likes of Scottish Power and Scottish Water use equipment that we can utilise in other areas too.
"When we send over donated equipment we also send a team of qualified members to train the services on how to use what we’ve given them as there’s no point giving them the equipment and not providing the knowledge on how to use it safely and properly.”
It’s not just the equipment donations that are required by IFRA to be able to sustain its work, it also requires financial support to help cover the costs of shipping items abroad.
One thing David is very aware of is the help and support that the charity receives not just from donating organisations and members of the public, but also from the team of volunteers working with IFRA and he says that without them it wouldn’t be possible.
He said: “We’ve got a really good team. There are around 200 members of IFRA all across the country.
"A lot of our members are ex emergency services and are still very dedicated to saving lives, but we have a lot of civilians on board too.
"It’s thanks to them that we’re able to keep doing what we do.”
The hard work and dedication of David and the whole IFRA team has been recognised over the years. David received an OBE from the Queen for his work in founding the charity.
Then in 2019, the charity as a whole received a special award. IFRA was awarded the Queen’s Award for voluntary services and remains the first, and only, fire service charity to have been given the honour, which is often described as an OBE for groups and organisations.
As part of the charity’s 20th anniversary celebrations towards the end of last year, its Thornton base received a special visit.
Princess Ann visited the premises in October, meeting with the charity’s volunteers, as well as representatives from some of those countries who have received support from IFRA.
David said: “It was a great honour for us to have the Princess Royal visit.
"She was really supportive of our work and enjoyed hearing about what we do.”
Now with the new year upon us, the charity is looking ahead to the future and its next containers and vehicles to be sent out.
David added: “Every single time I go somewhere and see the look on the firefighters faces when they see the donations, that’s my favourite moment.
"At least it’s my favourite until the next time we hand over a donation.
"It’s this that keeps us going and doing what we do.
"It’s been the greatest honour of my life to do this stuff.
"If you were to ask the members they will say it’s a great honour to do what we do and knowing that we’re helping to save lives.
"No one thinks about the fire service until you need them and we take it for granted when we are abroad that the service will be what we have here, but they are definitely not the same.”
To find out more about IFRA’s work or to make a donation, visit www.ifra.org.uk