Europe's oldest volunteer fire departments making do with less

U.S. fire departments' donated used equipment is delivered to rural Croatian firefighters

Editor's note: Last month, I traveled to Croatia as part of the International Fire Relief Mission's team. IFRM sent a 40-foot shipping container of donated fire-fighting equipment to the country. The team went to Croatia to ensure that those firefighters knew the capabilities and limitations of that gear.

The fire service is deeply ingrained in Croatian life, so deep in fact that children as young as four join the ranks of junior firefighters. Young and old, career and volunteer, they invest countless hours not only in training, but honing their firefighting competition skills.

"Our problem is not membership because we have a strong firefighting tradition," said Stjepan Kovacek, county fire commander for the Varazdin County Fire Service Association. "The big problem is money. We don't know how we will get the money to buy new equipment."

Varazdin County is in the country's northeast corner and contains five municipalities with 131 volunteer fire departments. Those five zones are made up of small, interconnected farming villages and small vineyards that are served by 2,100 operational volunteer firefighters; when you count junior, auxiliary and retired firefighters, that number jumps to more than 10,000.

The fire departments in the region are among the oldest volunteer departments in Europe; Varazdin's department began in 1864.

The volunteers are not paid for their time and most come from families where multiple generations were firefighters. Kovacek, for example, is a fourth-generation firefighter and his youngest son, barely four, is a junior firefighter; his grandfather was the last to use a bugle to call firefighters to the station.

Aside from the city of Varazdin, which has a 66-member paid fire department, the district's volunteers operate with badly worn equipment or none at all. One small village's only fire apparatus is a portable fire pump towed behind a van; the entire ensemble is squeezed into a building a little larger than a one-car garage that serves as the fire station.

Photo by Rick Markley
One of Varazdin County's water tenders.

Another village, Hrazenica, uses an apparatus and turnout gear donated 10 years ago from the U.K.-based charitable group Operation Florian. Hrazenica is where Ivan Debelec is a third-generation volunteer firefighter.

It was 22-year-old Debelec who solicited and organized the equipment delivery from the International Fire Relief Mission. That delivery, made up of donated equipment from fire departments, schools and companies across the United States, outfitted more than 300 firefighters in Varazdin County from head to toe.

Debelec began as a junior firefighter at age six and has represented his department in several skills' competitions, taking second place in 2010 for Croatia and fourth place in a multi-national event last year.

Kovacek said they recruit firefighters so young "because we want them to become infected" with fire fighting. It is very difficult for someone in his or her early 20s to join a fire department because so many others have been doing it their entire childhood.

The big one
Hrazenica averages about 10 fire calls per year, and most of those, Debelec said, are open field fires or barn fires. They do not run medical calls nor can they perform rescue operations.

Hrazencia's fire department played host to IFRM's training session where firefighters from across the district gathered to hear and watch IFRM President Ron Gruening explain PPE and SCBA use. With so few fires per year, its easy to imagine how they would be complacent during such an interpreter-driven training session.

Yet the firefighters were engaged and posed intelligent questions. And as anyone in the fire service knows, just when you think nothing can go wrong, something does.

Two days after the IFRM training, the region experienced one of its largest fires. A massive wood recycling and processing plant caught fire in the small hours of the morning and burned well into the day. Firefighters from across the region, some wearing the newly donated turnout gear, were deployed to bring the blaze under control.

Photo by Rick Markley
The deck-gun operator waits for water to resume dousing the wood processing plant.

Kovacek, who was on scene, said firefighting efforts were hampered by the business owner who had disabled the hydrant system he was required to have on the property.

Government support
As crews continued dumping water on the three-story wood plant, Gruening met with the fire chiefs and mayors of the five Varazdin County municipalities. Gruening stressed the importance of local funding support for the volunteer fire departments.

He also told the leaders not to consider the IFRM donation a one-time gift, but the first step in a long-term relationship to improve firefighter safety in that area. By seeing a concrete commitment from local officials, Gruening said, IFRM could work with its donors to continue supporting that region with equipment and training.

Like most areas of the world that IFRM visits, Varazdin County has more problems than a lack of political will to improve its fire service. In 2000, the Croatian government enacted a law requiring a minimum of 5 percent of municipal and county tax revenue be dedicated to the fire service. County and municipal governments can exceed that amount if officials choose.

The law has certainly helped, Kovacek said. Previously, funding was left to the discretion of the mayors and politics was often at play. However, Varazdin County and its municipalities are funded at close to the minimum, which he said makes it very difficult to get by.

In Hrazenica, for example, most of the fire calls are for farmers who set fire to their corn stalks after harvest. There is no law against or penalty of setting these fires, yet the fire department must bear the expense of extinguishing these fires.

"If the rest of the world comes out of the recession in 10 to 15 years, we will come out in 20 years," Kovacek said.

That level of economic hardship means that even fundraising efforts will fall short. Many departments will host fire fighting skills competitions in order to raise money off of the concessions.

But even that, said Debelec, might only net the department $500 once expenses are paid. Some departments also will make and bottle their own wine and sell it as a way to generate revenue.

Culture of training
Despite the economic hardships of the area, its fire fighting culture continues to thrive. Of the pool of junior firefighters, about 10 percent to 20 percent will go on to become operational firefighters.

To reach that level, they must complete training similar to Firefighter I. At the academy, volunteers meet three times per week for three months before being tested for operational firefighter.

And as important as equipment is for any fire department, the key for Varazdin County as it is for departments across the United States is training.

Some of the basic training comes from competitions, such as those hosted by volunteer departments. In those events, teams of firefighters are graded on their speed and accuracy at such firefighting tasks as securing a water supply; for the youngest age groups, the tests are as simple as carrying a nozzle.

"My personal goal and responsibility is to make sure the firefighters are educated," Kovacek said.

With help from organizations like IFRM and Operation Florian, those firefighters also are better equipped.

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