There’s a firefighter in all of us – Fire Safety Month tribute

October is a month that’s considered a bit special in the firefighting world. Each year we take extra time and effort in bringing the work we do closer to the local community and it’s people. For the occasion, I thought I’d do my own small part in bringing you my thoughts and views on the matter. Most Slovenians will likely be familiar with what we do, but for the international readers things might be different. I invite you to enjoy this article and look out for the photographs as well.

You see, firefighting is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon here in Slovenia. When it comes to fire safety, the job is largely done by volunteer brigades operating on a local level. Pretty much every bigger village has it’s own firehouse and corresponding equipment with a group of hearty people ready to help out on a moment’s notice. In a land of about 2 million people we have around 1400 such brigades, each with perhaps 100 members, some less, some even more. Of course not all of them are active firefighters, but since there is always a lot to do within the local community, each will find a place for him or herself.

And there is a lot of history behind it as well. Volunteer firefighting stretches back to the late 19th or early 20th century, where fires were a lot more common than they are nowadays. Buildings were built a lot simpler then, and mostly out of wood and covered with hay, especially in the rural areas. An overturned oil lamp could mean the risk of losing your life’s work, and it often got to that. Since there was no one to rely on other than your neighbours, villagers got together to form local fire brigades for just those situations. They vowed to help each other as best they could, and it’s this basic promise that still holds true today, a hundred years later.

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A visit at JVP Varaždin, Croatia, which keeps a collection of historic equipment and documents, including this pump and carriage.

We’ve certainly come a long way from horse-drawn carriages and hand-powered pumps. The ever evolving world brings with it a greater need of security, and it shows in firefighting work as well. There may not be as many house fires any more, but we are seeing traffic accidents and natural disasters on a regular basis and it’s down to the firefighters to respond and deal with the situation, no matter the weather or time of day.

From an outside perspective you might look at the numbers and think that we have a hundred thousand people walking around dressed up as firemen, just waiting for the siren to wail. In truth, only larger cities and industrial companies have a company of professional, full-time firefighters. The rest are people like you and me – men and women young and old, who live their normal lives and take pride in being able to help others in need. They are paid nothing except the internal feeling of satisfaction that comes after a successful emergency call, and a sincere “thank you” often means a lot more than money ever would.

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It’s not all emergency calls and fiery action, of course. Due to the large numbers of people and available equipment firefighters will often be called to help out at other local events, such as directing traffic or offering first aid at large gatherings, delivering water in times of drought, or generally helping where they can. All of this is done in a positive and relaxed way and you get to meet a lot of locals that way. Again, there is no monetary compensation in doing this, but they surely won’t let you leave thirsty – or hungry, for that matter. Thankfully, firefighters have always been regarded in a positive way and everyone always receives you with open arms.

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It is not  surprising therefore, that you should meet people with 50 or more years of service and who have devoted their lives for this noble cause. It’s easy to lose yourself in such an all-encompassing field of work, if you only set your mind to being able to “work for no pay”. Some people look at firefighters and wonder why anyone would spend countless hours of time and energy helping others for free. “What’s in it for you?” they’d ask. The usual answer would be to come along and see for yourself, because you can’t experience it any other way.

In the end it’s a lot like a hobby, I guess. Like something you try and it draws you in, to the point where you can’t stop thinking about it. Some people play football or video games, some learn to sing or play guitar. Others build model boats or airplanes, go hiking or cycling. When it comes to firefighting, for many it’s a way of life. It’s not unusual for whole families to be connected with the local brigade, so if there’s really no escaping it from an early age. You go to the fire house for the first time as a kid and meet friends there and 50 years later, you’ll find yourself drinking beer in the same spot with the same friends, talking about those times from long ago.

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The emotional pull is strong especially with young kids. The image of a big red truck with blue flashing lights makes your knees weak, and it’s no wonder kids want to be firemen for that reason alone. In those times parents play an important role and if they take the time to bring their son or daughter to the fire house, then everything’s possible. It’s a good way to teach kids the importance of camaraderie, teamwork and social skills. In many towns and villages around Slovenia kids are still given the option of joining, but sad to say many pass it by in favour of other, less healthy alternatives.

However, if one does decide to join into this brotherhood, no matter his or her age, ability or social background – in he only shows interest, then all doors are open. Beside just meeting friends there are trainings and special skill to learn, competitions to attend, some people have even taken up collecting and restoring old equipment. No matter you interest, you will surely find a place for yourself in the world of volunteer firefighting.

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Personally, I’ve been a member of my local brigade for a good three years now. I don’t come from a family with a long firefighting background, so my beginnings were a bit different; there is a tradition all around the country where each brigade would make their own calendars and hand them out them door to door, at each house in their district. It’s a way for us to say thanks to the people in the community and wish them all the best in the coming year. In return they would usually contribute some money which keeps the company going.

So every december two of the local firefighters would come knocking, we’d invite them in for a chat and they’d ask me if I wanted to join. I never thought much about it, but one year I decided I’d go, and after some time passed I eventually did. Since then I’ve spent hundreds of hours at the fire house, met some of my best friends there and a lot of people around town as well. It’s helped me to feel a lot more at home with where I live and I can’t imagine what else I’d be doing in my spare time. I always have something to look forward to and people to help me if the need arises. I’ve also combined photography with it and been able to produce some really pleasing results which bring joy not only to me, but a lot of other people around me as well.

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So what does it take to become a fireman? Well, the official terms might differ from one country to another. Not everyone might be suited for a full-time firefighting job. But by default, a fireman should be someone with an open heart and a willingness to help those around him as best he can. No matter your age, gender or physical ability, in your mind you surely have the capacity to do so, even if it is on a small scale. You don’t need much to make someone’s day better, and by doing so, you’ll make yours better as well.

With that in mind, I invite you to look through the rest of this themed gallery below and share your thoughts and comments with others.

To all firemen and women around the world, either by profession or simply by heart, this is a tribute to your good deeds. May the fires that keep you going never run out!

 

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Old firefighting stories take me back to a different time

Something a bit different than hiking and cycling today. If you’ve been around before or you happen to know me personally, you’ll know that beside everything else, I also spend quite some time at my local volunteer fire department.

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that there are many people who take firefighting a lot more seriously, even though it’s mostly done on a volunteer basis. We are at a point here in Slovenia where pretty much every village has it’s own department and sometimes whole families help out with whatever needs doing in the community. For some, it’s a way of life they’re born into and a village of 150 people will have 120 members in the FD. Sure, they may not all run out to help when the siren sounds, but there are fireman-based competitions, parades, meetings and educational seminars to attend and in most towns, firemen (and women) often help out other groups in the vicinity. It’s a great way to spend time and do something productive, meet new people and help them out in any way that we can. And today was one of such days.

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Public exercises offer great photo opportunities.

Enter my friend Lovro, who at about 21 years old has been a firefighter for more than 10 years. Besides not really thinking about much else in the world he also collects old firefighting items – anything from helmets, suits, badges, and documents to extinguishers, sprinklers and ladders. It has long ago gotten to a point where they’ve moved the family car out of the garage and put in all kinds of things, and even the garage is now becoming too small. I’ll have to go around and bring back some good photos.

So he talks to people and gets his stuff from all over the world. Some local, some from far off places Today he called me up and said he’s got an old ladder waiting for him and we should go pick it up. A remnant of a big industrial fire company that closed it’s doors along with the car factory it served back in the times of Socialism. The company was called TAM and employed about 8000 workers back in it’s heyday, even though half of them didn’t bother working too much. The factory produced trucks and military vehicles and sold them throughout Yugoslavia and other similarly minded countries.

Our department keeps one of their old vehicles, a TAM 125 T10 from around 1980. It isn’t used much any more, but we grab every chance we get to take it out. It requires a C-class license to drive it and luckily I have one and let me tell you – it’s a brute to drive. You need arms of steel to turn the wheel, surgical precision and much practice to actually change gears, a lot of patience and of course time. It’s painfully slow, ineffective and you have to shout over the sound of the engine. Even still, it’s the best thing I’ve ever driven and it brings a massive smile on my face.

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Though replaced with modern machinery, the old beast is still well loved and respected.
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Even getting it started is a mind boggling process. Good luck stealing it. 🙂

And so four of us took the roaring old truck and went to fetch the ladder (you can see the hook on the roof). The fun part was, there was an old man waiting there to greet us, a long-time commander of the TAM fire department and full of stories. I lived not far away from the factory grounds all through my youth and felt even more connected to his anecdotes.In a way, he looked a bit like our truck – slow and out of his time, but don’t think less of people simply because of their age. If you give them a chance and take time to listen to their stories, you might see the world around you in a completely new perspective.

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I failed to catch his name, but over a beer he told us about a housing estate 2 minutes away from where I lived for years – there were apartment blocks there now, but way back when it used to be shacks for workers. “They didn’t even have their own toilets. Everyone had to use communal ones across the street.” Imagine living in a place like that for any number of years.

One of his anecdotes confirmed how easy it was to get a job in those times. “My friend’s son just finished engineering school, so the guy asked me if I could help him find somewhere to work. I went to the HR manager at the factory. She said they’d just took on some people and didn’t have any more space. So I turned around to go and said I’ll make her life hell, just like that. I knew a couple of people. Before I even left the building she called me back and said to bring the boy’s CV. In the end they took on 12 people – 6 of them didn’t even have a place to sit at the office. They just told them to walk around the halls a bit, talk to people. Play some chess. And that’s what they did. And what’s more,  his pay was much higher than mine.”

He had plenty of firefighting stories as well. Apparently they had an old American fire truck back in the 60s and 70s which they used to bring supplies to the cottages and hotels on surrounding hills. “Winters were colder back then, and there was more snow too. We had to climb up twisty hill roads with those trucks, and nobody plowed them either. One of the trucks didn’t even have a roof – snow was up to my cabin sometimes, and it came across the windshield and onto my seat. So before long I had to start throwing it out, all while trying to see the road. It was cold as hell, but you were sweating just from the effort of steering the truck and shifting gears. We had no electronics to help you back then, it was all mechanical. Sometimes it took two people just to turn the wheel.”

Think of it what you will, but I believe the stories weren’t made up. They had no reason to be and I’ve heard many similar things before. These days, it seems like a whole other world to hear of it. And that’s what makes it so special – such first-hand accounts get lost as time goes on and sooner or later there is no one left to tell them.

So if you do get the chance to talk to someone like that – even your grandparents – take a few minutes out of your day and listen carefully. With time come many great stories and a very different view of the world.