Firefighters fear more budget cuts will mean dismissing a third of the force

Firefighters in the Czech Republic are greatly concerned at the course their budgets are taking. As the money from the Ministry of the Interior steadily decreases, the firemen’s union warns that further cuts may lead to substandard services.

In 2010, Czech fire services were still operating with a budget of roughly 8.5 billion crowns. Over the last two years that has been progressively cut by nearly two billion, and firemen are feeling the pinch. According to the chairman of the Czech Firefighters Union Zdeněk Oberreiter, any more cuts, and service will no longer provide what is currently expected of it, as he told Czech Radio earlier on Thursday.

“As a result of the nearly 1.5 billion cut last year, operational costs were cut to a minimum and investments are de facto at zero – there are only unavoidable costs for maintenance. We can survive 2012, but at the cost of decreasing our numbers, which certainly is not to the benefit of the services provided to the public. There is nowhere left to save except on salaries.”

Zdeněk Oberreiter,  photo: Czech Television
The union has therefore called a press conference to familiarise the public with the ramifications of what it expects are inevitable further cuts. Mr Oberreiter points out that the medium-term outlook for the state budget passed in December calls for fire budget reductions of nearly 900 million in 2013 and 1.5 billion in 2014, and says that such austerity would mean the end of the fire brigade as we know it, sending the service back to the level of 1972, when fire stations were only in district centres.

“The emergency response time would have to be increased because certain fire stations would have to be closed down. If we count on that 1.5 billion crown cut for example, that means dismissing 3,000 firemen. Today, we are supposed to have 9,026 firemen. So as you can see, it would mean losing one entire shift.”

Meanwhile, the cabinet has created something of a future conundrum for itself if it plans to abide by its medium-term budget, as the services that the fire department must provide is dictated by law, but the budget may not allow those services to be provided in full. In order for the budget to be followed, the law would have to be re-written to limit services, the union says.

And the union is not the only one warning ahead of more cuts. Several days ago fire chief Drahoslav Ryba also pointed out that the department’s budget was already at a historic minimum at which the service can still get by without the public noticing the difference, but not for long. More cuts he said would mean longer response times and would affect professionalism, with salaries already having been cut by 7% on average.

Meanwhile, the firefighters’ union points out that with an estimated eight billion crowns worth of property saved from fires last year alone, there is nothing economical about cutting firefighting services.