What began as one Ukrainian American firefighter’s desire to do something to help his homeland has grown into a national movement.
Donations of used firefighter gear, called turnout gear, have been arriving at the Clifton Fire Department from all over the country, ever since firefighter Oleg Skachko had the idea to help put out the fires in his beloved homeland, due to the Russian invasion.
“The response has been just unbelievable,” Clifton Fire Chief Frank Prezioso said Wednesday, watching Skachko and a crew of firefighters unload donations that arrived from departments in Bayonne and Fort Lee. “We have donations from New Hampshire, Arkansas, Texas.”
The Fort Lee Fire Department arrived at the Clifton public works yard at 12 p.m. Wednesday with 11 bags of gear.
Skachko, clipboard in hand, logged in the gear as firefighters loaded it onto a trailer. On the back of one of the coats, someone had scrawled “Slava Ukraini” - which means “Glory to Ukraine.”
As a firefighter, Skachko’s instinct was to run to the fire — even if it was thousands of miles away in his homeland. He went to his superiors and the union and asked permission to begin collecting boots, coats, helmets, gloves, air packs, axes and sledgehammers.
“I just wanted to do something,” said Skachko, who grew up in Ukraine and has been with the department for about three years. “Do something for the Ukrainian people.”
Word quickly got around to local departments. Passaic, Little Falls and Hawthorne were among the first departments to donate gear. Then a Facebook post about the effort went viral, and the donations started coming in from faraway places out-of-state.
The response has been something akin to 9/11, following the deaths of over 300 firefighters in the attack on the World Trade Center. Back then, it was an outpouring of grief and solidarity and months spent combing the rubble for the remains victims.
This time around, it’s donations of money, relief supplies and fire equipment.
“The brotherhood [of firefighters] is very strong,” said Clifton Fire Lt. Mark Drew, who is helping Skachko with the collection. “When there is a need for fellow firefighters and emergency responders, we’re always going to look out for each other. That’s our goal to help our brethren over in Ukraine.”
So far, Clifton has collected an estimated 400 sets of gear, and is keeping it in a trailer at the public works yard. The department plans to keep collecting gear until the end of the month.
Collecting the gear is the easy part. Working out the logistics is the real challenge. Flying relief supplies is expensive; the current discount rate is a little more than $2 per pound.
A set of turnout gear weighs around 40 pounds, which means it will cost about $25,000 to ship all 400 sets. Skachko said he’s working with a logistics company, Meest, and the shipping costs will be paid for by various Ukrainian nonprofits who are raising money for the relief effort.
“My job is to just to collect the gear,” he said.
Skachko, 35, grew up in Ukraine and still has family there. Like many, he’s seen the ravages of war in news reports — the burning buildings, often with firefighters out front, as well as the masses of people huddled in underground train stations and the faces of children.
Skachko said with fires burning all over the country, the aim was to get the gear to Ukraine as quickly as possible. How long those fires would be burning is anyone’s guess; Skachko would not venture a guess as to how long the war would last.
“All I can do is try and get as much gear there as possible,” he said.
More information on the Clifton effort can be found by clicking here.