As the German Fire Service Association turns 150 this year, DW-RADIO spoke to young members of a voluntary fire brigade in Cologne and found out what drives them into such a high-pressure job.
Professional and volunteer fire fighters work together to douse the flames
The red fire engine races through the narrow winding streets of downtown Cologne, clanging deafeningly as it reaches the burning one-story house.
Behind the wheel is Katja Midunsky. Just seven minutes ago, the 24-year-old was comfortably watching television at home. That was before her transmitter began bleeping and signaled the end of a relaxed evening for the young firefighter with the voluntary fire brigade in southern Cologne.
Midunsky belongs to the 1.1 million firefighters in Germany who work for almost 24,000 voluntary fire service organizations in the country. Compared to the just about 100 professional fire services nationwide, it’s the voluntary fire brigades who carry sole responsibility for dousing emergency fires in small towns with less than 100,000 inhabitants. In larger cities, the voluntary fire personnel play a crucial role in reinforcing overextended professional fire fighting teams.
Sense of civic duty along with fun
But who are the volunteers who so courageously sign up for such demanding and unpredictable work? And what makes them so willingly give up their free time to douse fires?
Midunsky, who crams for her first year law exams when she’s not battling fires, admits she’s an idealist when it comes to the job. It’s not the money, but the sense of civic duty and the fun that goes with being a firewoman that drives her, she says. "I’ve found an enormous sense of camaraderie here, it’s simply fun to work together with the boys. One has a feeling of community, and bears responsibility," she explains.
Her younger colleague 18-year-old Fredric Waker agrees. Waker, who first joined the youth branch of the voluntary fire brigade at the age of 12, has just been accepted as a full-fledged member of the Cologne volunteer fire fighting unit. "I’m somebody who loves to do sports, but I also love to be in the fire brigade because I get a sense of belonging that you don’t get elsewhere. Sometimes I have the feeling I’m something special because though others can also do it [the job], they don’t," he boasts.
Team spirit absolutely essential
Deputy Fire Chief Markus Ante underlines the importance of good team spirit and personal rapport among fire personnel. "It just doesn’t work without a good collegial atmosphere in a fire brigade. One must be able to rely on each other."
In a profession that involves dealing with crisis and demands strong nerves, the significance of good relations to one’s colleagues can hardly be exaggerated. Katja Midunsky, who has participated in some 300 emergency operations ranging from dousing dangerous fires to battling the yearly floods in Cologne, says that cooperation during a rescue operation is crucial.
"There is no competition and shouldn’t be either. One has to work hand in hand. The person, whose house is burning, is not interested whether it’s a voluntary fireman or a professional one going into his home. He just wants his house saved, the fire put out; and there can be no differences there."
Voluntary fire services a relief in hard-pressed times
But the difference between a professional fire team and a voluntary one is clear at a time when most German cities and towns are struggling with rapidly-dwindling public coffers. Voluntary fire services are a huge relief to cash-strapped city authorities because apart from bearing the costs of fire engines and the necessary equipment, city officials don't need to worry about paying the fire personnel a formal salary. Katja Midunsky says that professional fire fighters usually cost the city a lot of money because they are considered civil servants.
"To put it bluntly, there just aren’t enough professional fire personnel in the country. So as far as that goes, the voluntary fire services are an integral part of fire prevention. Things simply wouldn’t work without us." And for 150 years, or as long as the German Fire Service Association has been in existence, the volunteer fire fighters have been proving just that.