When Viktor Vitovetskyi joined Ukraine's State Emergency Service (SES) in 2003, he was enthusiastically looking forward to a career in civil defense in the then newly independent country.
He did not expect his job would include dealing with the consequences of war.
Viktor started out in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine and in the capital, Kyiv, supervising compliance of safety rules in buildings and shelters. Now he works in the SES command and control centre in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he is helping provide vital support to civilians across the country who have been impacted by the war.
This includes facilitating their relocation from areas of active fighting. Viktor also helps in coordinating the flows of humanitarian aid entering Ukraine from neighbouring countries.
"Right now we’re dealing with difficult situations that are occurring because of the war, because of the bombing,” he says. “We have to deal with challenges on a bigger scale, ranging from humanitarian needs to the destruction of housing and infrastructure."
Despite the chaos of a war, marked by the devastation of villages, towns and cities and the unprecedented displacement of millions, the State Emergency Service has proven its resilience, becoming almost overnight the backbone of the government's emergency response.
Its 70,000 personnel rescue people from under rubble and from fires caused by daily shelling, clear debris and unexploded ordnance to ensure safe passage for residents and humanitarian aid workers, and evacuate people to safer locations.
The popularity of the agency has surged, as reflected in an increase in recruitment: In a five-day period, 5,500 volunteers registered to join the service.
The partnership between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the SES has also been strengthened because of the war. Since the start of this partnership in 2016, UNDP's role had centred on enhancing the capacities of rescuers in providing timely, quality safety services to affected populations through providing technical assistance and transportation. UNDP also worked to improve the medical, psychological and media skillset of SES personnel.
This work was an integral part of the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, which is being implemented with financial support from the European Union, and the governments of Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands.
With the outbreak of full-scale war in February 2022, the partnership is now adapting to a new environment, on a larger scale. To help SES personnel service communities, whether they are on the frontline, under heavy shelling and siege-like conditions, or in transit or hosting IDPs, UNDP is contributing protection and firefighting equipment, generators for emergency power, food supplies, and specialized tools for removing debris.
UNDP is also providing life-saving equipment on the frontline and in areas now housing those internally displaced.
State Emergency Service personnel have always endured dangers in their work. But the reality of rescue work during a war has exposed them to danger on a greater scale than they had even imagined: "There are repeated cases of shelling while they're trying to clear debris and extinguish fires. We have already had more than 20 rescuers killed. This is a terrible situation," says Viktor.
New recruits now join with the knowledge that their lives could be on the line, and the threat of mines and unexploded ordnance left behind makes the risks even higher.
Viktor acknowledges the enormity of the challenge but expresses the dedication and commitment of all SES personnel: “Nobody expected this (war) in the 21st century. Life has totally changed. But our rescuers will work where they are needed, despite the danger.”