Volunteer firefighters make up the vast majority of the firefighting forces in Belgium, but until recently had no-one to turn to to defend their interests. In recent months they have created 2 associations, one on each side of the language border. 2,700 members have joined so far, almost a quarter of the nation’s volunteer firefighters, announced their respective presidents on Wednesday. The 2 groups aim to act as official liaison with authorities. They warn that it has become impossible to be a volunteer firefighter whilst having a job and a family. The Association of French- and German-speaking volunteer firefighters (APVF&GB) was created on April 10th, following a suggestion by its Flemish-speaking correspondent (VVB), which was created over a year ago. Together they hope to influence reform of firefighting services, especially in the field of training.
A volunteer firefighter has to update his skills for 24 hours every year, and 24 more if he is an emergency medical technician. This is on top of drills and performance, obviously. We just want to help people. But this almost feels like punishment,” worries Aurélien Caëls, APVF&GB member. The gap between professional and volunteer firefighters is a gaping one, adds Lucien Letocart, vice-president of the French-speaking association. “Professional firefighters get a permanent bonus of 38% (for any time worked, at whatever time of the day or week, editor’s note). Volunteers get between 0.01% to 25% at night and between 0.01 and 100% at weekends. It depends which zone you are in, which means that there are huge differences for the same work, depending on whether you are a volunteer or a professional, and where you are helping.”
Contrary to professionals, volunteer firefighters are only paid when they are asked to act. “We understand that. But for everything else, we want equal treatment,” adds Mr. Letocart. Although the real motivation of volunteers is not financial, current rules create an unpleasant competition with professionals, he believes.