29th Sep 2023

10 EU states cutting firefighters, despite summer wildfires

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On Tuesday (15 August), a wildfire broke out in the southern French region of Perpignan, forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 people and requiring some 450 firefighters to bring the blaze under control.

The fire, caused by severe drought, extreme heat and high winds, was just one of the many summer disasters.

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July was the hottest month ever recorded by the EU's climate monitoring agency, Copernicus. Temperatures in Greece reached 46 degrees Celsius.

Southern Europe was the area most affected by severe heat waves, with anomalies of around 4°C recorded in Italy, Greece, and Spain.

In mid-June, a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) gave a "pessimistic" outlook for the summer.

Climate change has increased the severity and frequency of heatwaves, droughts, floods, and wildfires in recent years — and not just in southern Europe.

Despite this increase in fires, floods and other emergencies exacerbated by the climate crisis, the number of firefighters has been cut in 10 European countries in the past few years.

According to new figures from Eurostat, between 2021 and 2022 alone, instead of increasing personnel to deal with these natural disasters, the response in several member states was the opposite.

From one year to the next, France lost almost 5,500 firefighters, Romania 4,250 and Portugal almost 3,000.

"All countries should be investing in their fire services and other public services to meet the increased burden that will be put on them by climate change," the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) secretary general Esther Lynch said.

European trade unions are concerned about the lack of staffing, investment and preparedness of fire and rescue services in member states.

According to the European Public Service Union (EPSU) estimates, there is a shortfall of between 20,000 and 40,000 additional firefighter professionals, depending on the number of hours worked and the area covered.

"If Europe is serious about climate adaptation and mitigation, it has to stop with cuts in public services," EPSU general secretary Jan Willem said.

Moreover, under the EU Commission's proposal for new economic rules, the ETUC estimates that the money the EU-27 will have to cut next year could fund around one million new public sector workers.

"Investment is already insufficient, and I'm concerned more cuts could be on the way if the EU reintroduces austerity rules next year," Lynch stressed.

In addition to staff shortages and public investment, one of the biggest problems facing the European labour market today is a lack of investment in skills and an ageing workforce.

The EU bolstered its rescue team this summer with 24 planes and 450 firefighters, but unions say this is only a first step that does not solve the underlying crisis.

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