(20 July 2022) Forest fires and heat waves are hitting Europe hard – yet again. With record high temperatures and no rain, life and work for many people in Europe is reaching a point of no return, putting the health and - in certain cases - life of many at risk. Firefighters and other first responders, emergency and medical workers are on the frontline to save lives, homes and communities. Some lost their lives seeking to save the lives of others. Our thoughts are with all workers that are on the frontline: from waste workers to postal services; from street cleaning to health and fire services. We stand by them, by their families and comrades. We express our solidarity with the firefighters and the unions, with the public service workers who try to keep the situation under control.
We have to ask about the causes, how we respond and prepare. One of the principal causes is climate change. It makes extreme weather events more frequent and more severe. On one hand we have heat waves - like the current European one - and droughts that make forest fires more frequent and intense. On the other hand, we see more and more extreme rainfall causing more regular and severe flooding.
These have detrimental effects on fire and rescue services, leading to greater workload, a deterioration of firefighters' working conditions and increased risks for their safety. Extreme weather events pose a variety of health and safety hazards to rescue workers, such as injuries from slips and falls, being struck by airborne objects, inadequate sleep and nutrition due to long and uninterrupted work shifts, physical exhaustion, mental stress, and vehicular crashes.
Climate change is going to lead to variations in precipitation levels, increasing the risk of droughts and water scarcity, which can affect fire brigades’ training and capabilities. Water companies can reduce the pressure in their mains supplies to minimize leakage, so firefighters may have to relay water across longer distances from alternative water sources. Other potential health and safety hazards associated with flooding are the exposure to toxic substances or contaminated flood waters (with chemical waste, oil, diesel, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.), asbestos and other hazardous dusts, mould, biological agents, flood debris, electrical hazards, drownings and blood-borne pathogen infections.
The potential problems linked with changing weather conditions require the adoption of appropriate responses, such as additional recruitment and investment in equipment (specialist firefighting appliances, water bowsers, portable dams, planes and helicopters assisting with the rapid extinguishing of wild fires).
As to how we respond and prepare, EPSU fully supports the need for Green and Social Deals at national as well as European and global levels, ensuring that workers and communities are not left behind and the transformation is just and profound. Mitigating the impact and preventing global warming is the way forward. We have to question how are economic system is functioning as we need a new direction that puts people and our planet before profits. It does mean that more public investment is needed and including in fire services to be able to adapt. We can not leave our firefighters and our public service workers without the means to tackle the problems.
EPSU has underlined how austerity policies have undermined the ability of public services to respond. If fire services are starved of funding, stations are closed, and there is not sufficient investment in trucks, planes and firefighters, peoples and our communities are less protected. If we do not invest in adaptation and develop national and European strategies for public services to prepare for the impact of climate change, the costs will be much higher. It is therefore appalling that some European governments are discussing how new austerity policies can be imposed as soon as possible. EPSU, ETUC and others have made clear and including in the Future of Europe Conference that there can not be a return to austerity. We need a new vision for our societies.
For more information
Read EPSU’s report on the EU’s failure to include firefighters and emergency responders in climate change adaptation plans here.