International Firefighters’ Day 2024: Europe’s firefighters need investment, not austerity

International Firefighters Day 2024 banner

(3 May 2024) On International Firefighters’ Day, EPSU stands in solidarity with firefighters across Europe, calling for greater protection and investment in the face of austerity and climate change.

Despite the escalating risks posed by climate-related emergencies, austerity measures have placed firefighters on the chopping block. Recent Eurostat figures reveal that firefighter numbers have been cut in ten EU member states despite the growing risk of fires, floods and other emergencies. Between 2021 and 2022, France lost the highest number of firefighters, followed by Romania and Portugal. The biggest percentage cuts over the same period came in Slovakia (-30%), Bulgaria (-22%), Portugal (-21%) and Belgium (-19%). The recent approval of new fiscal rules by the European Parliament further exacerbates this crisis, mandating budget cuts that will further undermine Europe’s firefighting and emergency response capabilities.

Europe's return to austerity coincides with a growing climate emergency that only amplifies the importance of firefighters and emergency responders. The recent European State of the Climate shows that Europe is the fastest-warming continent on the planet, with the three warmest summers in Europe’s history all occurring since 2020. Europe experienced its hottest summer ever in 2023 and with high temperatures came wildfires – last August, Greece experienced the largest wildfire in Europe since records began.

Climate change is also expanding the expected locations of these wildfires, with northern Europe experiencing a more significant wildfire season than historically expected. Arctic and sub-Arctic regions saw higher than average wildfire levels in 2023. These geographical changes in expected wildfire patterns mean that firefighters need to be prepared to adapt to new and unexpected forms of interventions – and this requires investment in equipment, personnel and training. By failing to invest in its firefighters, Europe is failing to prepare for a growing – and potentially catastrophic - climate crisis.

While volunteer firefighters play a crucial role, they cannot be viewed as a replacement nor a cheap alternative to professional firefighters and investment in emergency services and personnel. EPSU applauds the recent recognition of volunteer firefighters as workers under the European Social Charter, emphasising the need to protect their rights. Volunteer firefighters are highly trained to operate in emergencies and may be required to sign in for 12 and even 24 hour shifts, just as professional firefighters do. These volunteer firefighters must be protected by working time legislation and case laws, just as other emergency service workers must.

Europe’s firefighters deserve far more than a pat on the back or a round of applause this International Firefighters’ Day. They deserve safe staffing levels; PPE that is adapted to the changing nature of their interventions; compulsory decontamination; recognition of their profession as carcinogenic, and an EU strategy on firefighters and emergency services. Firefighters deserve investment that will protect them and the citizens who they devote their lives to protecting – they don’t deserve austerity.

Read EPSU’s six demands for firefighters here.