A flaming row has erupted following revelations that every week four firemen leave Portugal for a better life abroad. In the last three years, over 5,000 trained firefighters have quit the service due to poor pay and conditions, and recruitment has not made up the shortfall. But the minute fire association chiefs sounded the alarm, Portugal’s Firemen’s League rode into the fray, hotly refuting the claims and guaranteeing that the safety of the country was in no way at risk. So what is the truth?
Reading between the lines, and into the archives, the situation is critical. Firemen up and down the country have been highlighting the kind of obstacles they are up against – whether these centre on run-down mechanical equipment, service boots with no grip for difficult terrain or ‘protective’ suits that burn when they come into contact with sparks.
The truth is there is no smoke without fire. Firemen are not in the business of sounding alarms without reason, and governments do not announce “significant increases in support” – certainly not in these tough economic times – unless they know they are needed.
So, let’s centre on the claims that have been ‘hotly refuted’.
They came from the president of the country’s voluntary firemen’s association, Moreira da Silva, and his counterpart at the professional firemen’s association, Fernando Curto.
Both men confirmed the firefighter exodus – saying 4,000 voluntary firemen left because they had lost their day-jobs and couldn’t make ends meet, while 1,000 professionals had gone to work for better pay in the construction sector in Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Talking to Jornal de Notícias, Fernando Curto stressed the service rapidly needs 5,000 new professionals “because populations are already at risk”.
He added that firemen left behind are vulnerable because the state of the service means that “basic rules of safety” cannot be assured.
Curto has been sounding these alarms for years. Warnings in 2012 centred on the need for better reorganisation within the service: “We’re not concerned with how much money we receive or not, but with (the need) for a better financial reorganisation of the firemen’s and civil protection sector,” he told journalists.
The alerts have at last made some headway.
Government announces “significant increases in support”
This weekend, as news services flashed Fernando Curto’s words of warning across the nation’s screens, the Minister for Internal Administration Miguel Macedo was in Coimbra to assure the 42nd Congress of the Firemen’s League (LBP) that more funding was in the pipeline.
In turn, the LBP president Jaime Marta Soares attempted to put out the fires sparked by Curto’s words of doom.
“The situation is not worrying and the help (offered by firemen) is not at risk,” he assured Público.
“At the moment, we have a national service of almost 30,000 voluntary firemen. This year, another 2,000 came on board,” he explained.
His words hung there as the echo of Curto’s warnings still ricocheted around the country.
At this point, we should distinguish between “voluntary” and “professional” firefighters. Portugal’s Bombeiros Voluntários are all reimbursed for shifts and hours worked, but some are not paid a proper wage.
Indeed, for a fireman to become a professional, he must first join a fire station as a “voluntário”, the national firemen’s school in Sintra told us.
As Vítor Rio, fire commander in Lagoa, Algarve, added, “for someone to be a volunteer fireman, they have to have a very stable life and be willing and able to provide 12 hours of their life per week to the good of the community for basically nothing in return”.
In other words, it is little wonder that the service has trouble recruiting.
What is the government actually offering?
This is where the smoke really billows in. The well-timed double-act performed by Miguel Macedo and Jaime Marta Soares at the weekend has not revealed the extent of the government’s significant increase in support. Far from it.
In fact, when pressed, Macedo pointed to the need for private entities and municipalities to come in on the equation.
Talking to Lusa, he said it was in the interests of private entities “which benefit from the work of the firemen”, while local authorities “have responsibilities for civil protection”.
Even though Macedo confirmed the government’s willingness to increase financial support, he refused to be drawn on percentages, and “reminded” Lusa that “two years ago, there was an important increase in the order of 11%” for fire services.
Speculating on the significant increase promised for 2015, Marta Soares told Lusa he was hoping for at least 12%.
Whatever the government decides, we are unlikely to be any the wiser until early 2015, by which time the issue of firefighters’ pay and conditions may well have joined the queue of far more pressing matters as the beleaguered coalition government faces a looming general election.
Introduction of “Cartão Social do Bombeiro”
What the government will be considering is a selection of benefits to attract more people into the service. LBP’s Marta Soares told Público these would be included in a special “Cartão Social do Bombeiro”, which would entitle firemen to IMI rates and health service exemptions, free public transport – even free day-centre charges for family members.
Whether these will put ‘bread on firemen’s tables’ and halt the exodus abroad though is anyone’s guess.
As fire commander José Mendes from the northern town of Terras de Bouro told television reporters this week: “A fireman earns nothing! It is that simple. Our difficulties become harder every year”.
Referring to the country’s relatively calm summer for fires this year, he added that “all the saints up above” helped Portugal during the dry season. “I dread to think how it would have been if they hadn’t,” he said.
Support firemen in the Algarve!
The controversy couldn’t come at a better time for foreigners who celebrate Halloween (tomorrow) and Bonfire Night next week.
In the Algarve particularly a number of celebrations have been organised to raise money for local firefighters.
The biggest of all is in Lagoa, where Fatacil will be transformed for the evening of Saturday November 8 into a gigantic pyromaniac’s delight.
Elsewhere, in Barão São Miguel, near Vila do Bispo, locals are putting on a special show for Friday night (Halloween) at Bar Onda.
Organiser David Fish told the Resident the concert by local band Campo Crusties is to thank borough firemen for all their efforts recently putting out a major forest fire.
“They really were heroes, battling the flames for over 12 hours,” he told us. This is our village’s way of saying thank you.”