City of Santa Barbara Firefighter Sends Life-Saving Missions to Ukraine
Project Joint Guardian Dispatched 15,000 Pounds of Safety Equipment So Far
By Nick Welsh | August 18, 2022
Want to help bombed-out Ukrainians getting shelled on a daily basis by Putin’s war machine? Fire Captain Isaac Siegel has a very simple suggestion. “Boots,” he said during a recent interview. “We need work boots. New ones, preferably, preferably boots with steel. But boots in good condition. Boots.”
By day, Siegel works as a fire captain with the Santa Barbara Fire Department. The rest of his life, however, has become pretty much consumed by being the functional equivalent of CEO for Project Joint Guardian, a new international nonprofit that’s helping Ukrainian firefighters and other first responders there deal with the mayhem and carnage that began with Russia’s attack this February and hasn’t let up since. To date, Project Joint Guardian has dispatched 21 firefighters and about 10,000 pounds of safety equipment in two separate missions to Ukraine. Another one — 10 more firefighters and as much as 15,000 more pounds of equipment — is scheduled to be sent this September, courtesy of Direct Relief.
Ukrainian firefighters and first responders typically wade into the bombed-out and smoldering rubble, looking for survivors, wearing nothing more than tennis shoes, wool pants, and raincoats that qualify as only sort-of fire resistant.
“These guys are incredible first responders,” Siegel exclaimed. “They do things we wouldn’t dream of doing.” What’s defined as an on-the-job injury, Siegel noted, is very different in the Ukrainian war as opposed to what he’s seen in his 15 years as a firefighter. “There, you’re not considered injured if you can still do the work,” he said. “They have a very high casualty rate and injury rate, especially the firefighters.”
That’s where the boots come in.
It doesn’t help any that the Russian military has also been targeting first responders in what Siegel described as “double-tap” shelling assaults. Russians will shell a school, a hospital, a shopping mall, or a retirement home. Then they pause, knowing that first responders will soon arrive. They launch again, this time aiming to wipe out the Ukrainian first responders.
Project Joint Guardian was launched by San Diego–based firefighter Eric Hille calling for supply donations immediately after the Russian invasion. The sender, who had served with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, was looking for firefighters with military experience. Hundreds responded, mostly from the United States, but there were some from Western Australia. The outpouring of donations — “used equipment,” by American standards — from fire departments across the country and in Australia, Siegel said, was stunning. Ballistic vests. Helmets. Military-grade personal medical kits for quick trauma response. Two dozen jaws-of-life kits. Boots. Even a fire engine.
Project Joint Guardian has dispatched two missions — each one three weeks long — though Siegel, who has a degree in supply train logistics and is an operations city fire captain, is too indispensable to be sent overseas. He stressed that he keeps his volunteer work separate from that for the City of Santa Barbara. “No taxpayer dollars used,” he said.
Siegel got involved in part because he’s a firefighter. “That’s just what we do,” he said. It’s also because Siegel is descended from Eastern European Jews — from Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some participated in the Jewish revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of World War II. Many met their end in Nazi gas chambers.
Siegel’s parents grew up on the East Coast but met in San Francisco, both big fans of Jefferson Airplane. Siegel’s mother became a teacher, and his father was a public defender for 37 years. He and a brother both became firefighters. He joined the U.S. Forest Service, became one of the almost-mythical Hot Shots at Los Padres National Forest, and 10 years ago, he joined the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department.
“My parents are proud of my work,” Siegel said, “but my mom will still tell me not to sacrifice myself for a tree.” As for his work on behalf of Ukrainian first responders, there’s no hint of parental equivocation. “Being Eastern European Jews, they both understand what happens when people do nothing.”
As CEO, Siegel must fundraise. Air fares aren’t cheap, and gas in Ukraine costs $20-$40 a gallon. And he handles tax issues, website details, securing Medivac insurance for volunteers, and getting the right people sent to the right place with the right equipment at the right time. Military experience is essential, Siegel said. Though so far the volunteers have only experienced scrapes and cuts, it is a war zone. And though there have been no encounters with Russian military, Siegel assumes Project Joint Guardian volunteers would be treated as hostile operatives.
Having a Ukrainian speaker in each contingent is also critical — at least two are in every group. The volunteers spend considerable time training their Ukrainian counterparts on the proper use of the equipment they’re sending. “We don’t want it to end up in some warehouse,” Siegel said. Luckily, it turns out that fire departments in Sacramento and San Francisco have relatively large numbers of people of Ukrainian descent.
Siegel’s been most struck by the unity of the Ukrainian people. “We’d heard there were all these different factions, but that’s about 100 percent wrong. We’re not running into people who are Russians who happen to speak Ukrainian; we’re running into Ukrainians.”
As for reports of Ukrainian anti-Semitism, Siegel said that’s been overblown too. “It’s there, but no more than here in North America,” he said. “Being ethnically Jewish is my personal motivation, but we’re non-denominational. We’re there to help our fellow human beings.” If it were Russians who needed help, Siegel said, his crews would help any non-combatants or POWs too. “They’re fellow human beings.” For more information, visit projectjointguardian.org.