Firefighter returns to earthquake-hit Nepal on training mission

John Aitchison, front right, and members of the Isar team at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service's training centre in Portlethen. Picture: Contributed
John Aitchison, front right, and members of the Isar team at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service's training centre in Portlethen. Picture: Contributed
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A Scottish firefighter is returning to the scene of a devastating earthquake which killed 9,000 people to provide life-saving training to his Nepalese counterparts.

John Aitchison joined the UK’s International Search and Rescue Team’s (Isar) operation after the 2015 quake around the Nepal capital Kathmandu that also left thousands homeless.

It is mobilised to disasters round the world. Nepal’s location between two tectonic plates leaves it prone to large earthquakes.

The retained on-call firefighter and watch manager will head back there in November as the Scottish head of UK fire service charity Operation Florian. Aitchison is also a trainer who specialises in urban search and rescue at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s (SFRS) training centre in Portlethen, near Aberdeen.

He will travel with Dundee-based watch manager Daniel Gall and firefighters Steven Adams and Jed Smith, who are fellow Isar members.

They hope that passing on their skills will enable the Nepalese emergency services to better tackle disasters.

Aitchison said his experience in Nepal had left him “rocked”.

He said: “When you get a shout in Scotland, you have a lot of fire engines behind you. But out in Nepal, it was me with a small first aid kit and my knowledge.

“I was taken aback by it all.

“The destruction was on a mass scale – everywhere you looked was flattened.

“I think everyone was in shock and awe because we were looking at whole villages wiped off the map.”

“One of my jobs was to go out into the hills and count how many people had died, how many were still alive and what aid was needed.

“I could see scars in the landscape and tell quite quickly there used to be a wee town up there. It rocked you to the core.”

Aitchison said he had been spurred to return by the limited help he had been able to provide before.

He has launched a £20,000 appeal to fund the trip.

The firefighter said: “There was a lot of frustration for me that I wasn’t able to do more, and that was what drove me to go back.

“It was almost something inside me – being a firefighter and feeling like you haven’t done enough. They [Nepalese emergency services] expect us to provide them with a quality service, which we do.

“They know all about the SFRS and respect us greatly – they are very eager to get us across to train them.

“When I was over last, I carried out a needs analysis and the biggest thing people said they required was urban search and rescue training.

“As part of this project we will be training people, who will in turn train others – it’s a cascading effect and you can have a massive impact on a country’s infrastructure.”

Aitchison has made numerous overseas trips with Operation Florian.

He said: “If you speak to any firefighter, they will tell you this is why they joined the service – they wouldn’t be in the job if they didn’t want to be a humanitarian and help people.”