Opinion: Sweden’s stretched firefighters need more support

After a summer in which firefighters have struggled with wildfires and foreign resources were needed to turn the tide, it’s time for the Swedish government to step in, argues the National Association of Swedish Firefighters (BRF).

Opinion: Sweden's stretched firefighters need more support
Firefighters in Åhus, Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

This summer Sweden has been burning, with large forest fires in many places across the country. Several of these fires had firefighters beaten, resources running out and no staff available to relieve those who worked long shifts. Even equipment – including hoses and jet nozzles – was lacking in some places, a decisive factor in extinguishing work.

The Minister for Home Affairs Morgan Johansson said that we “generally have good emergency services and good preparedness,” but do we really?

The National Association of Swedish Firefighters (BRF) has a completely different opinion, and has repeatedly pointed out that the shortcomings are far-reaching and large. We are now seeing the consequences.

At an Almedalen seminar the BRF presented a partial report from a large survey conducted in the spring. It shows that we lack around 2,500 part-time firefighters in Sweden. Many full-time stations testify that there have been cuts in staff numbers.

If Sweden's emergency services were fully staffed it’s possible that some of the forest fires that grew to a large scale could have been extinguished during the initial phase, resulting in large savings for society.

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All firefighters know from experience that it is the initial phase of an accident that is significant for the continued course of events. If you are strong at the start, the negative course of events can be halted.

We feel there is evidence that the shortcomings within the Swedish emergency services are large and extensive, and the final report on the aforementioned survey, to be released in September, will provide a full picture.

The responses to some parts of the survey are astounding now that large parts of the country have been on fire. One example is that there is a surprisingly large amount of fire stations which completely lack the ability to transport water, and quite simply don’t have access to a water tender. All too often stations only have a basic car with around 3,000 litres of water storage – otherwise they have no water transport resources.

It hasn't gone unnoticed that Morgan Johansson spoke about bringing in “water bombers from Italy”. But are the EU and Italy the solution for Sweden? Is that where we should call as soon as a fire gets out of control because we don’t have a sufficient number of trained personnel to handle the situation? Of course not. If we were sufficiently prepared Sweden would likely not have needed resources from other countries.

Several of Sweden’s own tax funded resources in the form of army helicopters eventually took to the sky. A spokesperson for the Armed Forces explained in an SVT interview on July 17th that since pilots were on vacation, helicopters could not be manned, and also that fire extinguishing is not one of the Armed Forces’ tasks. The Armed Forces subsequently announced that helicopter crews were ready after a government decision to break-off their vacations in order to assist in extinguishing work.

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The decision therefore lay with the government. The emergency services are generally a municipal affair. It’s obvious however that they cannot bear the responsibility themselves. They need better support, direction and control from the state through clearer laws and regulations.

No, Sweden's political class, it’s not enough to just have opinions and do nothing, it’s time for action now. The BRF has received numerous calls from beat-down firefighters who said they could not continue any longer. “We need boots on the ground, hands pulling hoses, hands for extinguishing work, hands which can help to save what can be saved when the fires eventually become overwhelming after years of cuts,” wrote a fire officer who at the time was standing in a forest somewhere in Sweden feeling defeated.

The National Association of Swedish Firefighters (BRF) calls for accountability from municipalities, municipal associations, employers’ organizations, the government and the Riksdag. Sweden has likely never been poorer equipped for fire fighting in modern times. Intervention is needed and the BRF is more than willing to contribute with knowledge and solution to the problems.

Knowledge is needed. Something only individuals with long experience in the field have. Listen to us, for once.

This is a translation of an opinion piece written by Magnus Sjöholm and Christer Nyberg from the National Association of Swedish Firefighters (BRF), originally published in Swedish by Expressen.

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