Five Algarve boroughs were put on ‘maximum fire alert’ this week due to soaring temperatures. Twenty others in various districts were pegged at ‘very high risk’. Weeks away from the critical fire season, the countryside is drying up fast.
Yet in Lisbon, the minister of internal administration has come up with “a strategic new vision” (the description of SIC TV). Constança Urbano de Sousa wants reinforcement firefighters to travel by “train or bus” to emergencies, in order to “reduce wear and tear on vehicles, and the exhaustion of men on journeys”. De Sousa is purportedly “keen to do away with columns of firefighters circulating on the motorways”.
For a country delightedly banging the tourism drum – and reaping the financial benefits of millions of sun- and fun-seeking visitors – the inference is loud and clear: fires are not good PR, and should be fought as far from the public’s view as possible.
As a “strategic new vision”, it could not appear more ridiculous.
Indeed, PSD MP Duarte Marques has already picked up some sound bites in the media, suggesting relations between firefighting corporations and the government have never been so low – particularly at such a significant point in the firefighting calendar.
Monday saw the start of “Phase Bravo” – the month leading up to Portugal’s critical “Charlie” phase which runs from July 1 to September 30 – and Marques has told parliament that already Urbano de Sousa has lost the respect of “thousands of firefighters”.
Público too has addressed the issue saying a number of corporations will be boycotting this Sunday’s “Firefighter Day” (Dia do Bombeiro) celebrations.
The nub of the issue centres on money.
“We want to be certain that firefighting corporations have the equipment and finance they need,” Marques quizzed parliament this week, “because we see some boroughs where financing is lower this year than last, when the risk forecast is a great deal higher. This does not make any sense”.
Marques bypassed whether De Sousa’s ‘strategic new vision’ made sense, but Firefighters League president Jaime Marta Soares has been quick to lambast it, saying the idea is “years old” and “doesn’t work”.
Slamming government decision-makers for “institutional and ethical disrespect”, Soares asked the Bombeiros Para Sempre website: “What about the GNR GIPs (special forces) and FEB (firefighting personnel) of Civil Protection? Will they also be travelling by train?”
The truth, however, is that from an international perspective, none of this makes headline news.
Visitors to Portugal have little idea of the issues dogging firefighters – nor are they aware how badly these men and women are really paid.
In the Algarve, one of the mayors who strives to ‘think outside the box’ has suggested incentives be offered to young people to encourage them into the service, instead of seeing them opt for “better paid, less demanding” work at beachbars and restaurants.
A woman taking in ironing earns more than a volunteer bombeiro, Rui André told RTP last month – when the thrust of the news was that the Algarve was still lacking 300 firefighters.
As far as the Resident is aware, that situation persists.
As one fire chief explained to national tabloid Correio da Manhã last month: “Our men die earning €1.89 an hour. Authorities cannot go on playing with firefighters’ lives.”
Thus, as Phase Charlie approaches – with memories of the horrendous blazes of last year still fresh, and hectares of land up and down the country still blackened from smoke – what hope is there that this year will be any different from last?
The DECIF for 2017 (wildfire firefighting force) will, by June 30, include 1,561 ‘teams’ composed of 6,607 men and women, 1,514 vehicles, and 32 planes and helicopters, say reports. GNR agents will man 72 ‘outlook posts’ while for the first time 1,380 military have been trained-up to help take the pressure off exhausted firefighters in crucial ‘dampening down’ operations in major blazes.
For the critical Charlie phase, DECIF is to be boosted by over 3,000 more ‘boots on the ground’, another 500 vehicles, 16 more planes and helicopters and over 180 further lookout posts.
This is all ‘on paper’ of course, as vehicles have a habit of breaking down (hence Urbano de Sousa’s strategic vision involving trains and buses), and certain corporations have already threatened DECIF with a boycott, which may or may not transpire.
An issue that remains smouldering in the background is the almost complete collapse of the country’s multi-million euro KAMOV fleet of six firefighting helicopters.
Purchased in 2006 for over €50 million, four are currently out of commission – with repairs costing so much that only two look likely to return to service.
Leader writer Miguel Alexandre Ganhão suggested in Correio da Manhã this week that “no one knows” when the viable craft will be repaired – and we are talking of air support that, when it does work, costs the State €35,000 an hour.
A report in Visão magazine last year calculated that “between the acquisition, management, maintenance and repairs to the KAMOV helicopters, at least €348.8 million has been spent in the space of 10 years.
“That is the equivalent of what firefighting associations receive from the State in 13 years, and around 17 times more than is annually spent on the prevention of forest fires”.
And there you have it: the reason that firefighters up and down the country continue to push for better pay and conditions, at the same time showing little respect for those holding the reins of power and decision-making. The money is there to change firefighters’ reality, it is just a question of how politicians choose to spend it.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]
Photo: ANA SOFIA VARELA/OPEN MEDIA GROUP