Back in the summer of 2013……. I had the honor of meeting the wonderful crew from “Operation Florian” who provide donated fire equipment to Serbia and other countries around the world. Haydn Brown, a representative from Operation Florian, had mentioned that there was another organization from Wales that was doing some AWESOME things in Serbia too. A few weeks later I received a message from them! They had a catchy name “Blazing to Serbia“! We agreed to meet up at the mall in Belgrade, Serbia when they arrived. We sat for a few hours discussing our lives, our connection to Serbia and the foundation of the amazing “Blazing to Serbia” organization. “Blazing to Serbia” has visited Serbia on 12 occasions taking various items of equipment from the South Wales Fire & Rescue Service. The equipment provided includes 93 Gas Tight Chemical suits, over 300 Breathing Apparatus sets and cylinders, approximately 30 sets of hydraulic rescue equipment, over 300 sets of protective fire kit and helmets and various other items used at road traffic collisions, lines and torches.The most amazing part is the 18 fire trucks that they have driven down here and donated to many different cities in Serbia! It is rare to find such kind and giving folks who have no ties to Serbia, but who have such a passion to help the country and its people!! The ONLY thing that they are asking from all of us, is to help keep this wonderful organization going by clicking “LIKE” on their Facebook page!
1. What is “Blazing to Serbia?
A. Blazing to Serbia is an initiative of the South Wales Fire & Rescue Service, whereby a small group of volunteers acquire Fire Service vehicles and equipment and then donate them to the Fire Services in Serbia.
2. Who does it consist of and why did they join?
A. The Blazing to Serbia team is made up of Operational Firefighters from across South Wales, together with former Young Firefighters and friends.
3. Out of all the countries out there, how did you choose to assist Serbia?
A. Serbia was selected by accident. Due to my involvement with the Young Firefighters scheme, which operates all across South Wales, I decided to get myself a youth working qualification. On the course with me was a Scout leader who had recently returned from Serbiawith a group of Scouts. Whilst there they had visited a Fire Station and found that the fire engines were really old. He then asked at what age the trucks were replaced in South Wales and so the seed was sown. This was September 2006 and in March 2007 we made our first visit to Serbia.
4. What did you guys know about Serbia before making your first trip here?
A. Yes I knew that Serbia was part of the former Yugoslavia and had a vague knowledge of the recent Balkan conflict. Other than that I didn’t know anything at all.
5. Tell me a bit about your first impressions of Serbia when you first arrived here. How does it differ from Wales?
A. Coming from Pontypridd at the foot of the South Wales Valleys, I was used to mountains and hills all around, but the part of Serbiathat we visited was really flat, so this surprised me. But the thing that I remember most is how friendly and welcoming the people were.
6. How do you guys get your funding, donated vehicles, etc?
A. In order to get the vehicles and equipment form the South Wales Fire & Rescue Service, I gave presentations to the Senior Officers and the politicians who make up the Fire & Rescue Authority. After much persuasion they agreed to support Serbia for a fixed period of time. This period has now expired, so the arrangement that we had is now being reconsidered.
In order to transport the vehicles and equipment to Serbia the team carry out various fund raising events, like packing people’s bags in supermarkets, sponsored events, raffles and social functions. Without the good will and commitment of the Blazing to Serbia team, these fund raising events would not be possible.
The first convoy of 6 fire trucks that we drove to Serbia in 2011 was accompanied by a television crew from our National television station ITV Wales, who documented the journey. This documentary, called ‘Blazing to Serbia, was shown on National TV in November 2011. This documentary can still be seen on our web site www.blazingtoserbia.co.uk Because of the involvement of television, we were able to gain sponsorship for each of then trucks, which made the task of fund raising much easier.
7. How do you determine which city will get a fire engine?
A. Because the Serbian Interior Ministry is best placed to see where the trucks will be most useful and where they are most needed, we donate the trucks to them and they then allocate them accordingly.
8. What is the funniest story that you could tell us about all of your times in Serbia?
A. It won’t come as too much of a surprise to know that rakija leads to lots of funny situations, but a generally good example can be found on You Tube, just search for Tom Mac Fishing joke.
9. What do you see in the future of “Blazing to Serbia?
A. Fire Services across the UK are experiencing serious budgetary shortfalls and South Wales is no exception. Because of this the future of Blazing to Serbia is in the balance as Senior Officers and Politicians decide whether to sell the trucks, or continue to donate them to Serbia.
Outside of the trucks and equipment, the team has also been working with the Serbia Red Cross at Sremska Mitrovica. The team has helped with the provision of clothing, blankets, shoes and gifts for children and hygiene packs for families. We are also working with two animal rescue centres at Nis and Sremska Mitrovica.
So to answer your question, the future of Blazing to Serbia is uncertain in its current format, but if trucks & equipment is not available, then we will concentrate on other things. However, it would be a shame if we were not able to donate any more trucks, as the trucks also allow us to bring lots of donations to Serbia, at no additional cost.
In July, my future son-in-law James Randell, did an open air concert in the square in Ruma. A couple of weeks ago he did one in Sremska Mitrovica and a second one in Ruma. The concerts in Ruma have been to raise money for the Ruma Rotary Club and for a Bowel Cancer Charity. This is certainly something that we will be doing more of.
There is a saying that goes, “Charity, like its sister mercy is twice blessed, it blesses him that gives and him that takes.” The experience of driving across Europe in a fire truck and being able to make a positive difference in people’s lives has certainly made an impact on me and influences my thoughts and the way that I lead my life. This would be the same for the other team members too. Young people in theUK very often get a very bad press, so the fact that Blazing to Serbia has lots of young people who are thinking of others, often before themselves, can only be a good thing and benefit communities in Serbia and in Wales.
10. I really loved to hear about your little shoe boxes for the kids. Didn’t you run into some issues with customs last time? How did the kids react to them?
A. In December 2013, we sent a lorry load of equipment, ladders and clothes to Serbia. Whilst we were collecting these goods, I thought that it would be nice if we could send some gifts out for the children. I messaged the Red Cross at Sremska Mitrovica and they agreed that this would be a great idea. The team then set about collecting and filling 268 shoe boxes, with gifts for needy children. The contents of the shoe boxes varied, but contained items such as coloured pens & pencils, felt pens, crayons, chalk, calculators, note pads,colouring books, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste and toys, puzzles and sweets of every different type.
The Serbia Customs Service is always a challenge, but thankfully we are always able to resolve things eventually.
The intention was for us to visit a couple of weeks later and then help the Red Cross to distribute the shoe boxes. However, the shoe boxes did not clear customs until we had left the country, but the photographs that we saw ensured that the effort that we made was worthwhile.
Seventeen of the team visited Serbia 4th – 8th November and brought just over 400Kg of gifts and hygiene products with us. These were made into gift bags and we spend two days with the Red Cross, distributing them to needy children. This is an experience that will not only live with us for the rest of our lives, but will also influence the way that we lead our lives. Everyone was so happy to see us and were extremely grateful for our support and concern.
11. How can all of us that read this article help ensure that your awesome organization … continues? Is there something that we can do?
We really need people to visit the Blazing to Serbia Facebook page and give it a LIKE. We then need people to SHARE it with their friends and ask them to like & share it too.
Follow us on Twitter @BlazingToSerbia
On our web site we have a section for ‘Our Followers’. If there are any Serbian Celebrities, Politicians etc out there who would like to give us a photograph and some words of support to put in this section, it would be great.
We need to raise the profile of Blazing to Serbia in Wales & in Serbia, so any sort of media coverage would be great.