Into the war zone: What firefighters, medics and EMTs should consider before going to Ukraine

From freelancing to insurance, there are several factors that should impact go/no-go deployment decisions


"What can I do to help the people of Ukraine?” is a question people around the world, including firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, are asking themselves as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues. Some are answering that question by traveling to Ukraine to join the fight or care for the injured.  

Arthur Curry, 27, who has worked as an EMT and a volunteer firefighter, has applied to join the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine, a volunteer foreign legion military unit created by the Government of Ukraine. A Massachusetts paramedic is in Poland giving medical care to refugees. Greg (full name not revealed as a safety precaution), a Colorado paramedic with no combat experience, has acquired body armor and raised more than $1,000 to travel to Ukraine to provide medical care. I am sure there are other first responders, especially those with tactical or special forces experience, who are quietly reviewing opportunities for assignments inside Ukraine.  

There is much we can do to show support for the people of Ukraine without leaving our homes, jobs, friends and families. Dozens of organizations, like Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, are accepting donations for their ongoing medical missions. Your elected officials want to know your opinions on current sanctions and additional actions the federal government might take.

Doctors of the Central Clinical Hospital from Warsaw, Poland carry a Ukrainian child with disabilities to a special train heading to a border crossing on March 10, 2022.
Doctors of the Central Clinical Hospital from Warsaw, Poland carry a Ukrainian child with disabilities to a special train heading to a border crossing on March 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

For those first responders who feel compelled to respond in person, I ask that you pause to consider the following:  

1. What’s your why? What, where, when and how questions about traveling to Ukraine are easily answered with a Google search and talking to other volunteers. The most difficult and most important question to answer for yourself is your “why”? The “why” is the powerful purpose that is motivating you go to Ukraine, but more importantly, it is the belief that will sustain you in the face of incredible adversity and moments of sheer terror. If you don’t have a “why” that is more important than anything else in your life right now and for the next 12 months, I encourage you to look for other ways to contribute. It’s simply too dangerous to embark on a mission like this without a significant “why.”  

2. Don’t freelance. Find and research organizations that are placing medical personnel and other aid workers inside Ukraine and in neighboring countries to assist with the refugee crisis. There are many organizations with decades of experience recruiting, training and assigning volunteers in disaster areas and near war zones. Review their experience managing volunteers and risk management policies. Freelances can strain the efforts of other aid organizations, put others at risk and lead to confusion in an already complex situation.  

Retired EMS Chief Llyod Parker had this to say about freelancing, “Unless you are going with an invited organized team DONT’T DO IT. Services are limited, and you will be competing with the very people you want to help.”  

3. Experience matters. Like anything else, previous experience will be critical to getting placed with a reputable non-governmental organization and making an impact on the people in need. If you don’t have experience in austere conditions, including combat, Ukraine might not be the best first stop on the journey to acquiring that experience. There are many areas of great need around the world and existing programs, like the Africa Fire Mission, for public safety personnel to share their time and talent, while also building their skill set.  

4. Expedition gear list. Volunteers traveling overseas need to pack light, have the essentials and be able to travel easily from place-to-place. Greg, the Colorado paramedic, “bought body armor, a gas mask, acquired a helmet and other battlefield supplies.” Those are supplies in addition to the typical PPE, like gloves and a face mask, he might need for patient care at home. Find out what you will need before you leave the U.S. because the closer you get, the harder it will be to acquire essential items.   

5. Cash to be self-sufficient. Unless you are going as a paid contractor, assume that you will be responsible for all your travel expenses to and from Europe, as well as your travel expenses to reach your assignment, whether that is on the border or inside Ukraine. Some NGOs might provide basic housing and meal service, but expect to spend your own money on additional food, bottled water and equipment you realize you need once you are on the ground. Finally, do not forget to account for the lost income while you are overseas.  

Remember, if you can’t take on the expense of equipment and travel, there are many organizations seeking donations to fund their ongoing aid programs. The National Association of EMS Physicians wrote: “EMS respond to emergencies wherever they occur — including conflict & disaster zones. In support of our members & colleagues providing care in Ukraine & surrounding countries, NAEMSP encourages monetary donations to established international orgs like Doctors Without Borders and the International Medical Corps.” 

6. Insurance. Ideally, you will travel to and from Europe, provide outstanding compassionate care and return home unscathed. Realistically, you ought to know about the applicability of your existing health insurance coverage to injuries or illness sustained overseas, especially if you are working, volunteering or traveling in an active warzone. Does your coverage include evacuation? Will your existing short- or long-term disability cover injuries sustained overseas? Does the NGO provide any insurance protection for volunteers? 

Paternal worry and admiration 

If you have read this far and are strongly considering joining the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine or signing up with another NGO, I am worried about you. I can't help myself. I am a parent, risk-averse, often worry about the worst-case scenario. I am also a proponent of matching people with the best qualifications to the jobs to be done.  

I also admire people, whether they are in their community or on the other side of the globe, who move toward danger, who do the jobs no one else is willing to do, and who go above and beyond to show compassion for strangers who are suffering.  

Be helpful and be safe.  

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