An interview with a Budapest firefighter about the status quo of the Hungarian Fire Department and the appreciation of firefighters
The firefighter’s cause has always been close to my heart and I strongly believe that public opinion is not aware of the issues civil servants are facing even after the government’s highly controversial proposal regarding certain points of the pension system which deeply concern these people. I decided to examine the current situation of Hungarian fire departments in order to provide an inner look for civilians about the hardships of being a civil servant in a country heavily hit by the financial crisis, so I sat down with a Budapest fire fighter – who shall not be named – to discuss the matter.
In order to become a firefighter, one has to go through a long admission procedure. Applicants must be in immaculate medical condition, have to pass a psychological and a physical exam and be able to provide a certificate of good conduct which clears them for duty. Afterwards, there is a basic training which lasts for four months and upon its completion, rookies are sent to one of the precincts.
Contrary to the common belief, a fireman’s day is far from being dull and boring. John Doe said the following: “Many people believe that we spend our days sleeping and shooting the shit, but that cannot be further from the truth. Shifts start at 6:55 in the morning with a briefing when we discuss the tasks for the day. After a breakfast in the kitchen, we have theoretical sessions and lots of practice. Since the job requires strong physical condition, we often play football and work out a lot. Sometimes, we go to a nearby swimming pool too. Regular exercise is crucial in the life of a firefighter.” Afterwards, I asked him to tell me about the calls. “We respond to more than 1000 calls a year. Of course, there are certain periods that are busier than others, you know, like holidays. There are times when we only have to go to a single call per shift, but it is not uncommon to have more than 7 alerts either.”
However, being a fireman is definitely not just a regular job or an occupation, it is a calling. “You have to make several compromises should you choose to become a fireman,” says Firefighter John Doe, “you always have to be available at any time of the day. You may also be ordered to report to duty at the other side of the country within a day. If anything bad happens, a great fire or floods for example, we may have to work 24-hour-long shifts as well. In addition to this, firemen cannot be with their families throughout the whole winter holiday since they have to work once in every three days including New Year’s Eve or the first of January.” What is more, they are not allowed to go on strike, join parties or pursue political ambitions. Basically, civil servants like firemen have signed a social contract with the society: in exchange for giving up certain rights, being prepared and capable of responding to the situation with full commitment and professionalism regardless of environmental or other conditions without making complaints or excuses, they received certain benefits such as the chance to retire earlier.
In autumn, the government proposed a constitutional amendment regarding the pension system which caused massive outrage around the country. The plan intended to abolish certain benefits which allow civil servants and others who pursue a profession harmful to the health or have a job with massive physical demands to retire after 25 years of work after the age of 50 or 5 years before the pension age limit. Also, the government encouraged the reactivation of retired firemen, policemen, soldiers, prison officers, excise officers and members of other branches under the age of 57 on light duty. The government argues that it is totally unacceptable to pay an annual 50 billion HUF to 30000 servicemen who left before retiring age. When I asked him about the matter, the initial response I got from John Doe was that there is no such thing as a light duty around a firehouse. No one is assigned only to answer incoming calls or open the gates, they have to share these duties among themselves. “If a colleague serves as a telephone operator during a shift while the others respond to calls, he will be riding the rig with the rest of the crew the next day while another member handles the telephones. There are no specific roles, everyone has to take part in everything regardless of the complexity or the difficulty of the tasks.”
The previous legislation allowed retired civil servants to take up another job besides their pensions. Opposed to this, the new proposal offers two choices: they can be reactivated for 70% of their former pay or allowed to remain pensioners, but a 16% tax has to be paid and they can lose their pension if caught working off the books. According to John Doe, “the return of these people would result in a huge growth in the expenses of the department. Considering the facts that our salaries barely exceed the national minimum and we haven’t got a raise in years, the whole reactivation idea is utterly ridiculous.” In 2010, the Fire Department of Budapest had an expense of 8.2 billion HUF and 82% of this amount goes to wages and salaries which start around 85000 HUF per month. Only 2% is spent on additions and renovations.
When asked about the equipment, John Doe said that even though some of the tools and vehicles are quite old and even outdated, most of them are still adequate and usually perform well under harsh circumstances too. Besides, firehouses often receive new additions. How about the abilities of our firemen? Can we compete with the best? “It’s hard to tell, you know. The conditions and the requirements are very different, but I can assure you we are definitely not lagging behind.”
Afterwards, we discussed another crucial issue regarding civil servants: appreciation. John Doe claims that the people usually find the Hungarian firemen responsible, capable and professional. “Most of the time, people show gratitude and respect…” –says John Doe- “… not the government though. One thing is for sure, we are definitely not in the business for the money. Most people don’t even know that a lot of us live from pay check to pay check and many have to take two or three jobs to provide for their families. I know a lot of guys who come here from a workplace and when they’re finished here, they immediately leave for another. This is just terrible.”
To sum up, firemen and civil servants in general have long been in a terrible situation which was further deepened by the government’s latest actions. Even though people appreciate firefighters in general, they aren’t really aware of the major issues concerning them as a result of false media representation. One of their most precious perks have been taken away by the new amendment, while there is a constant need for new men on the job as very few people are responsible for the safety of overly large areas, but who would sign up for a dangerous job for minimum pay? John Doe marked the end of the interview with these words: “Do I regret becoming a firefighter? No. No… I love what I do. I love my job. The money could be a lot better, but as long as I enjoy what I do, I won’t change.”