As Firehouse Sees It: Visiting Austria’s Fire Brigades

April 10, 2023
Peter Matthews' visit with officers and members of the Austrian fire service prompted new admiration for their tactics and their dedication.

After a week in Austria during which I visited fire stations and with manufacturers and broke bread with firefighters, I developed a greater understanding of how firefighting happens beyond the United States and a new respect for what those people do, despite the opinions of many outsiders. What I found is that, through trials and tribulations, it works for the fire brigades based on staffing, common fire conditions and building construction.

 The biggest similarity that I saw to the U.S. fire service is a strong brotherhood and sisterhood. The members spend a lot of time together in both volunteer and paid fire brigades. Many of the career departments pull 24 on/24 off shifts, so the members are at the station much more than is the case in the United States. On top of that, many of those who I met are two hatters, so they have an immense passion for protecting the citizens of the communities. They look and act the part of the professionals who they serve.

Shockingly, a similar story to what we’ve been hearing here emerged: the struggle to retain volunteer firefighters and to attract new ones. Although the Austrian government provides various levels of funding and equipment to suburban and rural areas, the local departments still must work to train and to find the money to provide the various services.

 In the city of Wels, an apartment building that’s adjacent to the massive fire station is occupied by firefighters—similar to the live-in programs that are popular in Maryland and other states. Instead of a bunkroom, each member has an individual living space in exchange for time spent on duty and tending to equipment and training needs. A small paid staff handles administrative duties while the volunteers respond to the calls, conduct training from suppression to technical rescue and do community outreach.

I spent a day at the Alkoven Fire Brigade with volunteers who give countless hours of their time to the citizens of the community. (The station also serves as a social gathering place for members and citizens.) The small group of volunteers staffs an engine, tanker, ladder, heavy duty (think big city) crane apparatus, multiple boats for operations on the Danube River, and other emergency vehicles to protect their community and adjacent ones. It’s a collective effort of neighbors helping neighbors once you are outside of the city, and the members do it simply for the sake of pride.

We talked about firefighter cancer, and although they are aware of the increased risks to firefighters, they responded that firefighter cancer is relatively low in Austria, which was encouraging to hear. First, there’s much lower exposure to fires and their aftermath compared with here in the United States. Second, building construction generally keeps fires more contained, and there is less synthetics, fuels and other toxic material to burn. Third, the approach to firefighting tactics, including with limited smoke spread via curtains and ventilation, also plays a big role.

Further, firefighters remain on breathing air anytime they are in an IDLH space. Also, the chain of decontamination starts early, and members are quick to complete all steps: immediate on-scene decon of PPE and equipment, followed by strict, personal decontamination of the body and changing out of duty clothes on scene, to showers on return to the station.

We all have seen the “European apparatus” and their design that’s rooted in maneuverability on tight and low streets and for members to have access to all equipment quickly. As several Firehouse Magazine apparatus authors wrote in the past, apparatus in the United States often are focused on appearance and one-upping the neighboring fire company and not necessarily functionality. On Austrian apparatus, it’s very apparent that there’s a place for everything, and everything has a place.

Austria’s fire brigades continue to innovate and to improve their tactics, operations and emergency vehicles as things change. Despite the centuries-old buildings there, the brigades use modern tactics and continue to re-evaluate as needed.

In the coming months, I’ll write additional articles about my experiences and observations that I believe will be helpful to you. Several programs and concepts can be adapted in the United States—and I was reminded of the old adage of “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

I would like to thank Hermann Kollinger, who is a firefighter in Alkoven and the editor of Brennpunkt magazine (which is similar to Firehouse), for bringing my knowledge up several notches and for helping me with a memorable trip, during which I met incredible firefighters who I now am glad to call friends. Danke.

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