How can we protect those who protect us from the fire?

Firefighters hearing EP

(30 March 2023) Firefighters serve as our front lines whenever disaster strikes - and disaster is striking more and more often. In recent years Europe has seen floods in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands; fires in France, Portugal, Spain and Slovakia; and both earthquakes and the recent train derailment tragedy in Greece. A recent hearing at the European Parliament saw firefighters outline not just the risks they face to save us from the elements, but also the invisible elements of toxic carcinogenic particles that slowly wear down the health of both firefighters and the people they interact with.

To help our firefighters, the European Union must ensure that the Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC applies to all firefighters, not just professional firefighters. Volunteer firefighters continue to make up, in some countries, a large part of the workforce. EPSU believes that EU legislation and the case law of the European Court of Justice shall be applied without delay.

As a result of continued austerity, the number of firefighters has been dwindling; personal protective equipment is insufficient; and firefighters often do not have the means to properly decontaminate their equipment before going back in to save someone else. Having an adequate level of civil protection requires the adequate protection of our firefighters.

To recognise the severity of the dangers faced by firefighters, the EU should transpose the classification of the World Health Organization so that the occupational exposure of firefighters to carcinogens is properly classified as Group 1: carcinogenic to human. Anna Stec, University of Lancashire, explained that there is already enough evidence to conclude that firefighters are at high risk for many different types of cancer - whether by inhalation, intake through the skin, ingestion, or having to use improperly decontaminated PPE.

If we wish to protect frontline workers, we have to give them adequate means to do their jobs without having to compromise their own safety. There is a need for better PPE and to learn from best practices, such as Sweden and Poland, where there are mandatory decontamination procedures and separated clean- and dirty-zones.

Firefighters deserve more than a pat on the back. They deserve more than just tinkering around the edges by modifying the Asbestos Directive threshold values to 1000 fibres per cubic meter. They need more than just commissioning studies. There is enough good evidence to act now and research the particularities of harmonisation later. Otherwise, we fail to protect those who put their lives on the line for us every single day.

In the words of Raffaele Cozzolino, an Italian firefighter whose voice was heard by the European Parliament: “How will we protect those who protect us from the fire?”