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Sparks Fly Over Future of Sapeurs-Pompiers

Friday 15 October 2010

The future of the overwhelmingly voluntary fire service in France has been thrown into doubt by the EU Commission.

Around 80% of the 250,000 fire and rescue crews in France work in the service as volunteers, as occurs in many other European countries.

The primarily voluntary status of the service means that there are around four times as many trained fire crews in France as in the UK, where two thirds of the service is run by full and part time professionals.

When the French crews are not attending emergencies they either have other jobs or run their own businesses.

However, the EU Commission have been arguing for some time that fire crews should come within the ambit of the European working time directive (at the moment there is an opt-out), which would effectively mean the end of the voluntary nature of the service.

As a result, the French government is contesting the view that their voluntary fire officers should be categorised as ‘employees’.

The Minister of the Interior, Brice Hortefeux, has stated that he will introduce legislation to make it clear that the voluntary sapeur-pompier ‘is neither a public servant nor an employee, but someone who has engaged freely in support of the national community.’

The problem for the government is that the voluntary fire crews are engaged on a five year rolling contract for which they receive a regular remuneration, as well as an entitlement to a pension.

The payments for attending emergencies are not large, ranging from €7 to €10 per hour (with increases for weekends, holidays and late hours), but they are free of tax and social security contributions.

Accordingly, any change to the legal status of the voluntary firefighters would place in jeopardy the tax free nature of these payments.

If the volunteers were required to become full-time professionals then the budgetary consequences for the local (departmental and communal) councils who fund the service would also be enormous.

There is already growing resentment amongst the councils on the extent to which the fire and rescue service is having to step in and fill gaps left by the French health emergency health service, the SAMU (Service d'Aide Médicale Urgente).

With doctors increasingly reluctant to travel out from their surgeries, and ambulances not always available, the local fire brigades are having to step in and transport an increasing number of medical emergencies to hospital.

The councils complain that these call-outs are not being reimbursed by the SAMU, and that they cannot continue to pick up the bill unaided.

Last year the fire service dealt with 4.5 million interventions, an increase of 6%, which was not matched by an increase in their budget.

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