Floods put the country’s unsung heroes in the spotlight

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

The recent floods put the spotlight on the country’s unsung heroes - thousands of volunteer firefighters who fought side by side with professionals to save lives and property. It is not general knowledge, but the Czech Republic has one of the densest networks of volunteer fire departments in Europe, a tradition going back 150 years.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and later King of Hungary, had only recently ascended the throne when the first volunteer fire department in central Europe was established by German citizens in what is now the Czech town of Zákupy. Fourteen years later, the first strictly Bohemian voluntarz fire department emerged in the town of Velvary. It marked the beginning of a long and inspiring tradition equaled only by the Sokol youth sports movement. Today there are volunteer firefighters in every town and city and there is never a dearth of new members.

The Czech association of volunteer firefighters has 353,000 members, of that 49,000 children preparing for a rewarding and valuable way to serve their community. Jaroslav Salivar is deputy chairman of the Czech–Moravian Association of Volunteer Fire Brigades.

Jaroslav Salivar,  photo: MVCR
“This is an enormous advantage for the Czech Republic. The country has over 6,000 local administrations and in many of those communities volunteer firefighters are the only interest association that the mayor can turn to and whose help he can depend on until professionals arrive on the scene. The tradition of volunteering for this public service goes back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is often passed on from generation to generation. The Czech Republic is incredibly fortunate to have this army of helpers and I think that only Germany and Austria share this tradition.”

In the recent floods, twenty thousand volunteer firefighters joined professional fire crews and soldiers in helping to build flood barriers, evacuate people and later deal with the aftermath of the floods. In many cases they were the first emergency crew on hand, helping to save lives and property. They enjoy enormous respect and when a local organization ran out of funds during the recent floods and had no money for petrol the locals immediately started raising funds for them in the midst of the crisis to tide them over until the government gave them access to petrol reserves for free.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Jaroslav Salivar says that while the tradition of voluntary firefighters is flourishing it is flourishing against the odds because it has been hard hit by the government’s austerity drive and although volunteer firefighters are not paid for their services they need finances for petrol, car maintenance and new technology.

“You know we see the question of state support for volunteer fire departments as highly problematic, I would even say critical because there is a lack of concept. Whenever there is a fire, a flood or a storm the authorities look to voluntary fire crews for help but at the same time support for them is waning. In 2008 -2009 things were different, but in recent years I would say that the Interior Ministry has done woefully little for these dedicated helpers. In 2009 the ministry distributed 500 million crowns among local administrations who have volunteer fire departments. At the present time they are allotted 10 million altogether for investment purposes.”

Martin Polák of Odolená Voda is on the local voluntary fire department which was set up in 1921. Voluntary service to the community is a tradition in his family.

Photo: CTK
“Our unit is made up exclusively of volunteers and we are on roll within ten minutes of getting alerted to an emergency. Any volunteer firefighter has to meet certain fitness and health requirements, we all know each other and work well as a team. All of us have undergone training and we each know exactly what we are doing, and understand the technology that we are operating. That is absolutely essential because otherwise we would only just get in the way of professional crews.”

In the past towns used to have sirens to alert voluntary firefighters about emergencies, now they generally either have pagers or get alerted by an SMS message. The reason why it takes the team up to ten minutes to respond is that, unlike professionals, volunteer firefighters are not on duty at the fire station and ready to set off within seconds. The brigade of volunteers is made up of people working in different professions in different parts of town. Martin says that they get alerted to an emergency at the same time as professional crews and it depends on the location of the fire whether they get there sooner or arrive as a back-up team in the wake of a professional fire brigade. In most cases there is more than enough work for everyone.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Although voluntary firefighters are highly respected Martin says that some of his team-mates have had problems at work.

“It depends primarily on the good-will of your boss. The law says they should release us for these emergencies, but you know how it is in practice and not all bosses are willing to tolerate the fact that in the middle of an important job we drop everything and run. And of course you can’t arrange for fires to happen after work-hours. So it is a question of reaching an agreement with your boss.”

So given the difficulties and the danger involved, what attracts thousands of people to this form of public service? Jaroslav Salivar again:

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“I think this public service is extremely gratifying, you see the results immediately. Of course, it is also adrenalin-packed and for many men and women it is a matter of fulfilling a childhood dream. But not just that, it gives them a sense of belonging and shared values. You only spend part of your life – your active years - actually fighting fires or high water, but once you are a volunteer firefighter you are part of that community for life. We have three year old members and 80-year-old members. It is not just a life-long hobby, but a life-long philosophy.”