Hands up if you always wanted to become a fire fighter when you grow up!
Most of us have this ideal picture of fire fighters: ___ (fill in adjectives such as brave, courageous, heroic or daredevil). I can tell you firsthand that it is one of these duties that provide a combination of accomplishment, adrenaline, comradeship and a feeling of being useful to society in a brand new way (no pun intended!)
As a foreigner, joining the fire brigade is an opportunity to integrate in Swiss society. Also, what a way to learn some Swiss German!
How to become a Swiss fire fighter
The recruiting process can start at your employer, in case they maintain their own fire brigade, or online. Companies with more than 500 employees often maintain a volunteer Betriebsfeuerwehr responsible for:
- Safety of other employees, incl. first aid, CPR and defibrillator;
- First response in the event of accidents such as fire, flood, or machine/vehicle/office building related incidents;
- Protection and handling of hazardous situations in the vicinity of the office building.
What they teach you in basic training
Basic training to become a fire fighter consists of at least 2.5 hours per month, usually on weekdays during late afternoons or evenings.
And what exactly do they teach you? The range of activities is wide, and if you thought that we spend most of our time fighting fires, you have it wrong. Handling floods, fixing electrical network problems, rescuing animals, getting people out of elevators, providing first aid and stabilizing patients are the biggest part of the job.
Fire fighting training includes learning how to handle multiple types of hoses, pumps, respiratory and protection equipment, ladders and rescue tools. Also, learning climbing techniques and getting driving lessons for the vehicles.
The bottom line: Being part of a fire brigade is teamwork. We would not be able to perform without good communication, clear task assignments and comradery. No one is left behind, and everything is done step by step as a team. Most importantly, we never lose communication and always maintain a line of sight of our colleagues.
So, forget about the movie "Backdraft". Most fire fighters do not come running out of buildings in flames with a child under one arm, the mother-in-law under the other and the cat around the shoulders...
The new recruit training experience
All newcomers have to go through intensive training lasting five days. It is very close to a military camp as you will have to wake up early and be ready to rumble in uniform by 7 AM. (Did I mention that days are long?)
At the local training center, the facilities were state-of-the-art, capable of reproducing harsh fire fighting conditions.
(Photograph copyright by Feuerwehr Matzingen)
Especially designed buildings with underground parking garages are set on fire the entire day for various workshops. The idea is to train your instinct and do things "mechanically" - in the middle of the action, under stress.
You will fight fire multiple times every day. You will learn how to handle hoses, with your sight obstructed, by following the verbal commands of an instructor… You will climb hundreds of stairs, feel real heat, experience complete darkness with a limited air reserve, and more!
Meet the "Fire Box
The ultimate experience is the Swiss designed "fire box". Inside this metal container, you will be exposed to up to 175 degrees C.
It is hot to the point that first combustion gases on the ceiling catch fire again, having you mesmerized by the view and being completely surrounded by fire.
The physical tests are quite intense and include the tiring spyro test: With a mask on, you will have to cycle to an increasing resistance until you give up or your heart rate shoots up too high. To make it more fun, the medical personal will come pinch your ear to get readings of your blood sugar as the effort increases.
Other experiences include:
- Handling of chemical catastrophes;
- Being locked up in a smoke filled container in complete darkness for 20 minutes;
- Find and put out fires in multiple story buildings (plus find and rescue possible victims);
- Drag your instructor out of a car in flames;
- And being on top of a 40 meter tall ladder.
Needless to say, you should be neither claustrophobic nor scared of heights to become a fire fighter!
More than just a "hobby", being a fire fighter in Switzerland is a real responsibility. It gives you the opportunity to learn and improve many useful skills while making some extra money on the side.