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Aging strikes Germany's firefighters

Nancy Isenson
August 25, 2019

Fire departments are struggling to find new recruits — crucial for a country where 95% of the firefighters are volunteers. Without them, Germany could see more out-of-control wildfires, like elsewhere in Europe.

Firefighters during an exercise at the voluntary fire brigade in St. Katharinen, Rhineland-Palatinate
Image: DW/N. Isenson

Just as demographic change is reshaping German society, so too is the aging population having an impact on its more than 22,000 voluntary fire brigades. The German Firefighters Association (DFV) has seen a steady decline in the number of volunteer firefighters for years. Whereas nearly 1,070,000 people were members of voluntary fire brigades in 2000, by 2016 that figure had fallen to around 995,000, according to the DFV.

That wouldn't matter much if firefighting was just a hobby that people did to spend time with their neighbors, keep in shape and contribute to the community. But here the volunteers are indispensable both for the cities and the countryside. Only Austria has a similar system of relying on volunteers.

Read more: EU sets up fleet to combat forest fires

"It is a treasure that we have in Germany that is easily taken for granted," says Carsten-Michael Pix of the DFV, in Berlin. "In every small place in Germany you have a voluntary fire brigade, which can't do much alone, but the sum of many small fire brigades is, societally as well as for the actual purpose, a huge treasure.

Indeed, German hasn't experienced massive wildfires raging out of control, as has been the case in other countries, he says, thanks to the voluntary fire brigades' comprehensive coverage. Even in the most remote parts of the country, firefighters are not far away.

Firefighter put out a forest fire in northern Germany
Voluntary fire brigades are rarely far away from the scene of an emergency in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

But as volunteers reach retirement age and quit the service, fire departments are finding it more difficult to attract new blood. Some have had to shut down due to lack of personnel. The Stolzenfels voluntary fire brigade, which had been in operation since 1925 in the city of Koblenz, was forced to close on New Year's Eve in 2018.

Times have changed

"The voluntary fire department is a mirror of society. German society is also getting smaller and is struggling with the same problems as we are," says Pix. That is one of many reasons why the number of firefighters is falling.

"Another argument is that people's interests may not be what they were 50 years ago or longer," Pix says. "They have become very individual since then. The culture of the club — the fire brigade is similar to a club — isn't as popular as it was. People don't want to make a long commitment to a club or a position or a task."

A fireman in Frankfurt opens a fire hydrant to put out a fire at a museum
Professional fire departments in cities rely on volunteers to get their work doneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

In less populous parts of the country, where jobs may be scarce and young people more inclined to move away after finishing school, the decline in volunteer firefighters is acute. Yet, it is no less an issue in the cities. There, people tend to make the not-entirely-true assumption that the job of firefighter is paid, says Frank Hachemer, DFV vice president and president of the Rhineland-Palatinate Firefighters Association.

Read more: The dying rural communities of eastern Germany

While cities with more than 90,000 residents are obliged to have a professional fire department, they all have voluntary fire brigades too, with whom the 31,000 paid firefighters cooperate on a regular basis. Their training, equipment and expertise are comparable, as is the standard they must uphold.

Local heroes

"A professional fire department can't function anymore without volunteers," says Tobias Schaarschmidt, fire chief in St. Katharinen, a town of 3,600 in Rhineland-Palatinate, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Bonn. "They'll manage to cover the day-to-day business, but when you have a large-scale disaster, like recently when there was torrential rain in Bonn, they don't manage anymore."

The fire chief is standing by this particular weekday evening as a county examiner tests the firemen and (one) firewoman in his brigade, who must rescue a headless dummy and put out pretend chemical fires within minutes, avoiding any potentially dangerous mistakes.

Tobias Schaarschmidt stands in front of a fire truck at his fire station in St. Katharinen, Rhineland-Palatinate
Fire chief Tobias Schaarschmidt has devoted his free time to the local fire brigade since he was a boyImage: DW/N. Isenson

Schaarschmidt, 39, first got into firefighting as a kid, like many people do. At 12, he and some friends joined the youth fire brigade, one of various after-school activities. At 16, he graduated to the adults' fire brigade, and when he moved to St. Katharinen in 2000, he joined the team there. He became fire chief in 2013.

His brigade is made up of 34 people, with a maximum of 40 and a minimum of 28. It is one of nine fire departments in the municipality, which covers 65 square kilometers from the Rhine into the hills and valleys above it.

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"During the day you won't find anyone here," says Schaarschmidt. Unlike a professional fire station, a voluntary one is unmanned. But when the regional control center sends the alarm to their pagers — or via text message for those who work too far away to receive the signal — the volunteers drop what they're doing and race to the station to suit up and set off on their mission. Last year the brigade took action in 65 cases. They average around 60 operations per year.

Firefighters durign an exercise in St. Katharinen, Rheinland-Pfalz
Volunteer firefighters must meet the same standards as their professional colleaguesImage: DW/N. Isenson

Being a volunteer firefighter is a significant commitment, and there is no financial compensation. St. Katharinen's brigade comes together for training and practice two nights a week. New members learn the essentials over four weekends. As technology has developed, firefighters must have ever more specialist knowledge, which means they will likely take part in further training, from learning radio communications or mechanics skills to working with a respirator or a hazmat suit. Physical fitness is a must — respirators with which firefighters can enter smoke-filled spaces weigh 15 kilos (33 pounds) alone. Tests and physical checkups take place periodically.

Often St. Katharinen's members come from family dynasties of firefighters, frequently people who, like Schaarschmidt, started out in a youth fire brigade. But, he says, newcomers to the town make up the numbers nowadays. The voluntary fire brigade is an instant way to become part of a new community.

That is one of the aspects that Frank Hachemer hopes to take advantage of to bolster the brigades' future. His plan is to apply for them to be declared intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. He says the German Firefighters Association is seriously considering the idea.

Volunteer Firefighters