Ukrainian firefighter speaks about ‘constant stress’ of being a first responder

As Russia often targets Ukrainian apartment buildings and gathering places, firefighters are typically the first people to arrive after an attack. First responders themselves can be targets. The World’s Daniel Ofman meets a young Ukrainian firefighter who risks his life to save others and finds out what he does to stay strong.

The World

On a recent day at the Holosiivskyi district fire station in southern Kyiv, firefighters and rescuers were running a drill to test their preparedness.

They sprinted from inside the station to the firetruck, geared up and got ready to depart. Later, they checked their equipment and test saws, cutters and other high-power rescue tools.

This equipment is used in situations where metal or other material needs to be cut or dislodged to save someone.

First responders check equipment and test saws, cutters and other high-power rescue tools during drills held at the Holosiivskyi district fire station in southern Kyiv.Anastasia Vlasova/The World

Over the past few months, Russia has intensified its bombardment of Ukraine using drones, cruise missiles and glide bombs.

When the air defense fails to stop an attack, Ukraine’s first responders jump into action. Firefighters and rescuers usually have less than 3 minutes to get ready before climbing into their firetrucks and rushing to the scene.

Firefighters and rescuers at the Holosiivskyi district fire station usually have less than three minutes to suit up before rushing to a scene.Anastasia Vlasova/The World

The drills being held at the Holosiivskyi fire station are run by Vyacheslav Tarashchenko. 

Now in his 30s, Tarashchenko said he’s wanted to become a rescuer since he was in high school in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine. When he graduated in 2012, he enrolled in the firefighter academy in Kharkiv.

“I think I was the first and the only student in the history of that academy who would get a D for that assignment because when we were putting out the fire,” he said, “I joined a really experienced firefighter and I went inside the burning house — which I wasn’t supposed to do — and when my commanding officer saw me, he screamed at me, told me to get out of the house, and said, ‘you get a D because you were not supposed to go there.’”

Despite the rocky start, Tarashchenko graduated and got his first job in 2016.

Tarashchenko has wanted to be a firefighter since high school. He said to be a first responder, one needs to stay focused and remain mentally strong.Anastasia Vlasova/The World

But, the job changed drastically after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

“My life has changed a lot because you’re under constant stress, and you’re mostly stressed not about your own well-being but about the health and safety of your family,” he said.

Tarashchenko’s mother still lives in his hometown of Mykolaiv, which is much closer to the frontlines of the war than Kyiv and, therefore, more dangerous.

He said that he’s tried to convince her to move, but she won’t budge — even after relatives were killed in an attack nearby.

A crew of firefighters and rescuers at the Holosiivskyi district fire station huddles before conducting drills to test their emergency preparedness.Anastasia Vlasova/The World

“We had a cluster munition hit the house where my cousins lived, and two of them died,” Tarashchenko said.

Though he’s more concerned about his mother’s safety than his own, Tarashchenko said being a first responder in Ukraine is highly dangerous, in part because of a Russian tactic called “double tapping” — which is a second attack targeting rescuers.

“Whenever there was a shelling or missile hit, and the rescue workers would go there, very often, there were repeated hits in the same spot, and that, of course, made our work much more difficult,” he said.

Working under that kind of stress takes a toll on you, Tarashchenko said.

Just last week Ukraine’s interior minister posted a video from the aftermath of an attack in Kharkiv.

In the video, a young firefighter breaks down in tears after he finds out that his father, also a rescue worker, was killed in a double tap strike. Other rescue workers hug him, tell him to breathe and try to calm and console the young man.

Tarashchenko said that to be a first responder, one needs to stay focused and remain mentally strong.

Tarashchenko said being a first responder in Ukraine is highly dangerous in part because of a Russian tactic called “double tapping” — which is a second attack targeting rescuers — so it’s always a stressful experience.Anastasia Vlasova/The World

“Your brain is under constant stress because you need to calm people down who are asking for help,” he said. “You also need to assess the risks and threats to find the best way to help these people.”

When Tarashchenko is off the job, he does three things to maintain his mental health: he speaks with a therapist, goes for long walks at night, and listens to classical music – mostly Beethoven and Bach.

“We also understand and accept the fact that, war or not, we are working in a dangerous business,” he said, “so we do have this sense of fear at the back of our minds but we’re trying not to think about it, and we’re trying to do the job to the best of our abilities.”

Tarashchenko said that a thought that helps him with the job is that he feels that he’s needed. Despite not being a soldier fighting on the front lines, he said he sees how much he can help others as a first responder.

Volodymyr Solohub contributed to this report.

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