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Fire brigades shrinking dangerously

Photo: MTI/Zoltán Mihádák

Hungarian firefighters are complaining that their ranks are decreasing and aging, which could become dangerous. The National Directorate General for Disaster Management (Országos Katasztrófavédelmi Főigazgatóság – OKF), on the other hand, doesn’t see any problem and touts growing staff and successful education, reports index.hu.

The net salary for firefighters is a mere HUF 160,000 (USD 607), and only HUF 40,000 (USD 152) for trainees, which could be fueling the problem. Many of those who show an initial interest in firefighting leave as soon as they find a better paying opportunity.

Firefighting is regulated by the OKF and not by local councils, and was nationalized in 2012, coming under the purview of the Ministry of Interior. Some claim that’s when the negative changes started.

“I can still hear a sentence from a staff member at the meetings before the nationalization in 2012 that the average age in the brigade is 32 years, x months. Now it’s over 40,” said an anonymous firefighter.

Colleagues, who would only speak to online daily index.hu anonymously, said firefighters used to leave the stations by going into retirement, and new applicants needed to know someone but still only got on the waiting lists. Now, even younger firefighters were quitting and the brigades were slowly shrinking because there aren’t enough newcomers. Index.hu reported on a recruitment event in Érd, Pest County, that had been advertised in print and on the internet, but no applicants showed up.

Also contributing to the aging of the fire brigades was the elimination in 2011 of the possibility of early retirement at the age of 50. Other benefits such as cheap summer camp for firefighters’ children, free access to the local swimming pool and gym, and housing allowances had been drastically scaled back, further reducing the appeal of the profession.

It is difficult to realistically evaluate the situation because the individual stations and the union don’t have exact data about the total staff number. As the problem began to be apparent, however, the firefighters’ union counted the operating fire engines last year. According to its data there were 64 fewer fire trucks in the country in 2016 than three years earlier.

OKF, however, told index.hu that the firefighting staff has been constantly increasing, and the number of firefighters was “9,364 people in 2010 and 10,324 on January 1, 2017.”

The average age of firefighters was 35.5 years in 2010, the OKF wrote, adding that while it is continually increasing, the reasons for this are low turnover and significant wage developments. Currently the average age of firefighters is 38.2 years.

 

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