Greece needs more volunteer firefighters

Public servants, doctors, artists and people in many other lines of work have trained to fight alongside paid firefighters whenever the Fire Service is needed. Greece has a total of 2,800 volunteer firefighters, men and women aged 18-55. They work at fire stations, wear the same uniforms and fight fires. Altogether, there are 21 teams and one station of volunteers. In fact, the Pendeli team is directed entirely by volunteers. As the volunteers explained to Kathimerini, apart from the feeling that they are making a contribution, they have also developed particular abilities and reflexes. The volunteers do a mandatory training period of 75 hours and serve at least four times a month. The catastrophic fires of last summer were not enough to inspire others to become volunteer firefighters. Fire Service officials said that volunteers are of great assistance, especially in mountain villages and islands where there are no fire stations and access is difficult. They pointed out that many municipalities do not offer to help, while volunteer forest firefighters (who are not connected to the Fire Service volunteers) often are not ready for action because they lack suitable training and equipment. «The contribution of volunteer firefighters is invaluable. When needed, as is the case with forest fires, they work with us for much longer than the eight hours a week they are obliged to,» Fire Service Chief Athanassios Kontocostas told Kathimerini. The problem, said Brigadier Panayiotis Sotirakos, who is in charge of the volunteers, «is that that volunteerism is not developed in Greece, so the number of volunteers is low. Changes in the law are expected to offer more incentives to volunteers, but the basic incentive should still be the desire to give of oneself and the concern of each person for their area.» The volunteers participate in the activities of the Fire Service, but mainly in putting out forest fires. And, as officials noted, volunteers are the first to get to fires in places where there is no permanent firefighting unit. Amended law The General Secretariat of Civil Protection (GGPP) has a record of 238 volunteer groups from all over Greece with some 100,000 registered members. They engage in all kinds of activities (including rescues and the provision of aid) but do not usually possess the knowledge and equipment needed to fight fires. They are used, however, behind the lines. The committee working on amendments to the law covering volunteer firefighters (Law 1951/91) is currently in session. The new law will not only offer incentives to volunteers, but will also clarify the level of cooperation of groups that come under the GGPP, which is expected to push for a uniform management arrangement for all volunteers. ‘Making a contribution to society’ Niki Biggou, psychologist and career adviser, 28: «I live on Pendeli, which has been burnt many times. I watched the flames and couldn’t do anything until I decided to join the Fire Service as a volunteer. With knowledge, you feel safe in a fire. We founded an association and, with other local associations, we collected money to replace the municipality’s old fire engine.» In 10 years as a firefighter, she has persuaded many friends to volunteer. «Most of them give up after a few years, but they’ve gained experience.» Serapheim Tsiougris, public servant and general secretary of the Attica Union of Volunteer Firefighters, 38: «Love of people and the environment, and making a contribution to society are why I became a volunteer firefighter. The state isn’t enough. Everyone has to do something. Greeks have got used to doing nothing unless they’re paid.» A volunteer firefighter for nine years, Tsiougris is now chief officer. «If there had been more volunteers last year, we would have saved many hectares because volunteers can fight local fires in the first crucial moments.»