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Capacity building in


Rob Davis


On 24th February 2022 Russia invaded the eastern border of Ukraine and occupied 20% of the country, resulting in the displacement of approximately eight million Ukrainians. This created Europe’s largest refugee crisis. Along with thousands killed, every day the communities of Ukraine experienced a large-scale crisis and a major emergency.

During the summer of 2023, I secured a contract with Frontier Operations ( to consult and manage a capacity-building project within the war-ravaged country. Frontier Operations is a UK- and Ukraine-based company. Working for it, I was asked to provide a programme of training in key subjects such as urban search and rescue (USAR), water and flood rescue, safe working at height, hazardous materials response and trench rescue. Additionally, advice and expertise were requested in the mechanism of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM).

I deployed to Ukraine in May of 2023 to undertake a scoping exercise and prepare for a future visit to conduct the training programmes. I returned in June for three months to deliver several fire and technical rescue courses, along with teaching on INSARAG guidelines and management awareness.

The attacks on the country are impacting many communities across Ukraine, and the need for additional technical rescue and specialist firefighting training has been identified as part of this project. Incidents range from the targeting of residential and industrial areas to the destruction of critical infrastructure. Hence, incidents can range from fire, USAR, hazardous materials or flood to a combination of any of these. This gives the potential to have unique incidents.


A project on needs assessment

The needs identified by my May 2023 visit to the country included what training criteria were of importance. This included war-related SAR competencies but also normal business needs for the country's state emergency response and State Emergency Support Unit (SESU). The capacity and needs assessment highlighted that the following were needed:

  • Urban search and rescue (USAR) in the form of a train-the-trainers course and elite USAR course in preparation for the creation of an additional INSARAG heavy team within Ukraine.

  • Hazardous materials (hazmat) awareness, especially linked to USAR and principles of safe working in confined spaces.

  • Introduction to and awareness of INSARAG guidelines.

  • A water rescue operator course, including flood and boat awareness.

  • An exchange of ideas on working at height.

  • The design and delivery of two-day exercises, and the experience of working at night.

After each course, a set of recommendations was drawn up to include additional development needs, future equipment needs, and future policy and doctrine requirements.

The delivery 


Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)

The USAR aspect of this project involved two three-week courses based on an established training centre within Ukraine (1). The first course was a train-the-trainer package covering the key USAR elements. These included technical searches, USAR command and control, breaching and breaking, timber shoring operations, lifting and moving heavy construction members, and an introduction to trench rescue, hazmat and confined space working. An introduction to the INSARAG guidelines was also undertaken. A number of State Emergency Service Unit (SESU) personnel attended and successfully passed this course. Equipment was of a high standard and technical search-and-rescue equipment is available on front-line appliances and for specialist units throughout the country. Some equipment was provided by a consortium of NATO countries to assist with Ukrainian civil defence during the war and for non-war-related incidents. A candidate from each Oblast (district) attended the course and their role was to cascade the USAR input within their own regions to build capacity at the local level.

The second USAR course was to train candidates to an advanced level of USAR in preparation for a request to have an additional heavy INSARAG team within the country. This course had the elements of USAR as above but also concentrated on providing a more in-depth understanding of the INSARAG guidelines and setting up and running a USAR coordination cell (UCC) and a reception and departure centre (RDC).

Water Rescue

At the end of August 2023, a one-week water rescue introductory course was completed for two cohorts of students. This course was designed to provide a basic understanding of working in water and flood events. It included elements of hydraulics, use of throw lines, defensive swimming practices, V and Y lowers (the technical set up for a rescuer to be lowered with the flow into a water rescue situation), inflatable sledge rescues, water rescue hierarchy, tethered rescue, use of powered, and non-powered boats in rescue, and flood rescue management.

The course was conducted at an established training centre on a local water course. It made use of a local fire station, which allowed elements of theory to be taught and practised. Newly procured water rescue equipment was used during the two courses and some excellent pieces of equipment were available, including technical rescue sledges, throwlines for water rescue, dry suits, and associated personal protective equipment (PPE). Nevertheless, more specific water and flood rescue equipment is needed throughout Ukraine.

The deliberate attack on the Kakhovka dam on the 6 June 2023 highlighted the need for mutual aid support and standardised water rescue equipment and competency across Ukraine.

Working at height

The working-at-height aspect of this project was conducted in the west of the country and involved an exchange element of skills, knowledge, and competencies. During this period, I also delivered some basic USAR and water rescue skills.

Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)

The Opora project included elements of CBRNE and EOD input, and this was delivered in tandem with the search-and-rescue aspects by fellow subject matter experts (SME’s). 

Recommendations and next steps

Following each of the training courses, a set of recommendations was given to SESU and then the Ukrainian Government. The intention is that an Opora-2 project will be scoped and put out to tender in 2024 for further support and development within the key subjects of USAR, water rescue, working at height and further support for their future development of INSARAG capabilities.

Within the technical rescue capabilities, the recommendations include further training and advancement of their skills in USAR, water rescue and working at height, and more support for war related incidents and non-war related events. Additionally, recommendations have been given to acquire additional technical rescue equipment and more specialist equipment such as a Paratech® metal shoring system. This is needed across the country to support the response to collapsed buildings, conduct trench rescues and the management of other technical rescue situations.

Work is ongoing to assess risk and analyse the wildfire hazard within the country and to estimate the need for additional equipment, training and doctrine.


A major recommendation is for SESU to introduce the INSARAG national accreditation process (NAP) and provide a national standard for USAR response, along with additional knowledge and development in incident command, health and safety, and non-technical skills (NTS).

PLEASE NOTE - (1) For security reasons, exact locations are not specified.

About the Author

Rob is a retired Fire Officer who served for 30 years and has had a long involvement in international disaster response and disaster risk reduction. He is currently undertaking a PhD at University College London's Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction and is a roster member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office team. If you would like to know more about the project described in this article, Rob can be contacted at


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