Firefighters hot under the collar

  • There aren’t enough of them and they’re underfunded.
  • They view Joëlle Milquet’s proposals as unsatisfactory.
  • Blockaded train stations on Tuesday?

On Sunday evening, they blocked the center of Brussels. Not satisfied with the results, they repeated the maneuver early afternoon on Monday. Belgian firefighters have had it up to their helmets with “working with scraps”. They decided to let the whole political world know it by demanding to be heard by the special council of ministers. “We’re not asking for the moon, only for the means to work effectively,” assures their president, Marc Gilbert. On the stroke of 3 pm on Monday much of the downtown area was blocked, and thick black smoke rose from rue Belliard, where tires had been set alight.

There are currently 17,500 firefighters in Belgium, but only 5,000 of them are professionals. The rest are volunteers for whom firefighting is a supplementary activity. “It’s not enough compared to the numbers in the army or on the police force,” continues Gilbert. “Anyway, it puts us outside of the law since it stipulates that a team must include ten people to respond to a fire. Due to our present numbers, we often respond with a team of two – three maximum. This places our men and the public in harm’s way.” Monday morning, the rallying cry was launched. They headed to rue de la Loi to make themselves heard.

A little before noon the firefighters met at the entryways to the capital. For those from Hainaut, the rallying point was the Ruisbroek Total gas station. The fire trucks and ambulances arrived little by little from Braine-le-Comte, Mouscron, Ath, Chièvres – even Quiévrain. There were about a dozen. “Not all of us could make it,” says Philippe Haumont, the Braine-le-Comte commander. “We need to ensure that at least minimum service remains available in case of emergencies.”

Olivier Lowagie, a volunteer firefighter since 1996, turned professional in 2006. He now runs the Mouscron fire station. “I have always wanted to serve the public,” he says. “As time wore on, personnel began to fall off. We live in an entertainment culture. Young people don’t have the same desire as before to give of their time to the fire service. In our region, this results in temporarily or permanently closed fire stations, such as the ones in Antoing or Lessines. This has the harsh consequence of longer response times. The human and material damage is then much greater.”

This situation did not keep 22-year-old Anthony Schittecatte from signing up two years ago. “It’s a tradition in my family. Everybody’s a volunteer firefighter,” he states. “I’m well aware that the means are lacking, but it needs to be done. People are counting on us.”

Philippe Carlier, serving in Chièvres, illustrates his young colleagues’ remarks through numbers. “Under normal conditions there should be 75 of us at the station. There are actually only 31. And we’re not even recognized as a high-risk profession. Fortunately our training has been improved. We now go through fire school, and we can receive continuing education once a year.”

Around twelve thirty in the afternoon the emergency lights were turned on. The convoy started heading toward rue de la Loi. Upon arriving at their destination, the Hainaut firefighters met with their colleagues from other regions, all intending to make their voices heard.

Marc Gilbert and the union representatives were certainly heard, but only by their supervisory minister, Joëlle Milquet, and a representative from Elio di Rupo’s cabinet. At the end of the day, around 4 pm, disappointment and anger were palpable. “The interior ministry promised €3 million, and 15-20 more that she plans to recoup here and there,” fumes Gilbert. “It’s insufficient in view of the 75 million we need. As for the other ministers, none of them wants to see us. They say ‘good luck’ then slink off. So we’re going to stay in Brussels as long as it takes and rotate as needed. After that we’ll step up our actions if we need to.” Specifically, there is discussion of blockading the Zaventem train stations and airport. It’s also possible that the firefighters will apply the 2012 royal decree to the letter, which would bear a real resemblance to a firefighter strike. “In that case, we will only leave the fire station if there is a team of ten available for an emergency. If not, tough.” This appears to be an extreme and even unthinkable solution, but this time, anger is rising.


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One Response to Firefighters hot under the collar

  1. Paul says:

    I cannot escape from the creeping impression that, at the present rate, politicians can’t muster the courage to admit that the nation is going bankrupt. The responsible entities might utter carefully worded statements or even make promises -usually vague, or misleading- but never squarely hit the nail on the head. Why? Well, for one, the government need more money to run things in the way the citizens have been accustomed to expect (“Excel” would call that a circular argument). And, with elections nearing, this is not the right time to antagonize the public. Moreover relatively fewer citizens are available for contribution to what an increasing number of otherwise non-citizens have been convinced it is their right to demand. Any accountant could predict the outcome of such sum-total of expectations and means: down the hatch. Meantime, fire brigades continue to be undermanned, mailpersons to be bitten by mad dogs instead of being able to take their well-deserved holidays, trains to be ever strike-bound at Charleroi or thereabouts. Of course this will blow up, one day. The sooner, the better.

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