When you see a fire, your natural instinct is to run away from it, as far and as fast as possible! Things are different for firefighters. They have to face the danger in order to save lives. But running into buildings that are on fire, is only part of the job. Therefore I’m glad chief John Widdershoven of the firefighter unit in Brunssum was kind enough to talk to me about what it means to be a firefighter, chasing exotic animals and why you seldom see an job advert in the newspapers for the fire department.
John started working as a firefighter in his mid-twenties. He didn’t necessarily want to become one when he was younger, but he is glad things turned out the way it did. “I love my job. It’s basically a hobby, which turned into a profession,” he explains. “The hours are good, the work is challenging and diverse. It’s great. I get paid to do what I love and invest quite a bit of my spare time in voluntary projects as well.”
Speaking of volunteers, there are three kinds of voluntary firefighters. “One group consists of so-called quartered voluntary firefighters, who have shifts of 24 hours. They start at 7 am and leave at 7 pm when the next group arrives. There are usually one or two of them, three at the most, on each shift. Then there is a second group of volunteers who have to stay in the village or city they’re stationed during their shift. When the alarm goes off, they have to show up at the base. Then there is the third group who only get paid when they are paged to come to the base for an emergency.“
“Many of the voluntary firefighters want to become a professional firefighter,” says John. “That’s why you seldom see a job advertisement in the paper for this profession. There are enough people connected to the fire department, who are already experienced enough to qualify for the job.”
What does it take to become a firefighter? “One of the most important qualifications are working well within a team, being able to cope with stress and being in good shape. You get a medical check, fitness test and assessment before you become a fire fighter. It of course all depends on the specific position you’re applying for. The assessments for officers for example are different. People who have a college or university education usually don’t manage to get to become part of the group here. There are exceptions of course, but in general it’s more important to have a technical education. People who prefer to do manual work.”
When you pass all the tests and are a team member, you become part of one of the three divisions in their base. “The first one is repression, which has to do with firefighting,” John continues. “The second one is prevention. The people who work for this division for instance go to companies to check their fire safety precautions and educate people about fire hazards. The last, but not least, is preparation. They take care of exercises and training.”
So what does a day on the job look like on average? Just to be clear: at this base the firefighters don’t lounge around until the alarm goes off! There’s a schedule which resembles the daily activities of many people, such as training, cooking and doing chores. They are always ready to spring into action in case the alarm goes off. “That’s why exercising is also part of the daily routine, because everyone needs to have a certain level of physical fitness to be able to do this job properly,” John clarifies.
After a day of hard work, training and tasks, the whole team cook and eat together around 6 pm. Afterwards they for instance watch TV or work on their car, because there is a lot of technical knowledge among the team. Around 11 pm most of them go to bed. I thought everyone would sleep with their firefighter uniforms on, but that’s apparently not necessary. Though they do have to be on the street in their fire truck, approximately one minute after the signal comes in.
Pets in trees
The alarm doesn’t only go off for fires, because apart from fighting fires, the team occasionally have to come to the rescue of pets, who manage to get themselves stuck in a tree. Cats are keen tree climbers, but John also had to come to the rescue of a snake and a so called monitor lizard (‘varaan’ for Dutch people). Chasing parrots is also part of the job. “The tasks are extremely different,” John chuckles. “The lizard wasn’t that dangerous, by the way. But the owners said I had to look out for the tail, because he could sweep me off the ladder if I wasn’t careful.”
When they have to respond to a real fire alarm, the causes are very diverse. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my country, the Netherlands are quite ‘infamous’ because of the (in general) relaxed attitude towards drugs. I’m totally against it, but a few fellow countrymen grow their own drugs at home. “Those drugs laboratories are often the cause for domestic fires. Of the annual 50 to 60 domestic fires (on average) a pretty large part has to do with hemp plantations,” John informed me.
After the interview John showed me around the base. Eventually the tour was coming to an end, but before I got the chance to properly say goodbye, the alarm rang in the entire building. The signal for ‘duty calls’. John shrugged and smiled. “These things happen,” he said and at the same time the other fire fighters came running out of the kitchen, bolted down the stairs and I had no choice but to run after them. John managed to show me the way out in the chaos and I went outside with my camera, just in time for picture of the unit pulling out of the base in their fire truck. The perfect ending for an interview about this ‘fiery’ profession!