In Venice, Fire Fighters Use Boats, Sail to Alarms Atop Water Supply
The alarm sounds. Fire fighters and a squadron leader dash to a boat. A boat? Yes.
In Venice, Italy, fire fighting goals are the same as everywhere, but the method differs from all other places. A city of 100,000 on lagoon islands connected by canals and bridges requires special apparatus, namely completely water-borne equipment. In four respects, it’s a fire chief’s dream: the traffic problem is minimal, there are no skyscrapers (five stories is the norm), construction materials are of low flammability and there is an unlimited supply of water.
The fire fighter’s job in Venice is part of the national fire service controlled by the Interior Ministry. It is a soughtafter job. Every year, there is a competitive examination and last year some 3500 men tried for 450 posts. Anyone in Italy between the ages of 18 and 27 can apply provided he is proficient in a trade.
The official government newspaper lists the number of places available for, say, a carpenter, painter, plumber, etc. The applicants compete within the occupational category. The prestige, national pension plan, guaranteed steady employment and pay all attract applicants.
Must have a trade
For these motives and one other, there is very little turnover. The additional explanation of such stability is the fact that 80 percent of the Italian fire fighters are related to one another, a closeknit guild, indeed.
The road to becoming a pompiere (fire fighter) is precise. There is first a general written examination on subjects ranging from geography to history. Thirty-five questions are then asked about the applicant’s specialty. If he passes this, he goes on to a physical fitness test and oral questions about his trade. The successful candidate then spends six months at school in Rome.
The Campanella school in Rome is known throughout Europe as a model of modernity and thoroughness. All phases of fire fighting are studied. Military, auxiliary and volunteer fire fighters are also trained in Rome. Having the profession under national control creates a consistency of discipline, competency and experience.
At the end of the six-month period, the prospective fire fighter takes a final examination and then is sent to wherever his specialty is required. A man from Sicily may be assigned to Milan or vice versa. There is attempt, however, to assign people close to their homes, or where they prefer to go, but the decision rests solely with the Interior Ministry.
Stations on islands
Under the control of the Venetian district headquarters are 406 fire fighters assigned to posts within the region served by the city. In addition to the headquarters station in Venice, there are smaller stations on the outlying lagoon islands, plus the Lido beach area, the Chioggia fishing village, the airport and the Mestre/Marghera industrial complex.
Photo AFI, Venice, photo.
Leslie D. Bruning photo.
The work schedule, established by a new law, is 12 hours on day duty, 24 hours off, 12 on night duty and 48 hours off. This results in an average 42-hour work week.
One telephone number, 113, is used throughout Italy for emergencies. All 113 calls, as well as those dialed directly to the fire department, are tape-recorded. With the sounding of the alarm, the initial response squad of six men heads to a motorboat. As the squad leader passes the telephone operator’s desk, he picks up the address and meets his men on the boat.
Canal traffic warned
When the alarm is sounded, a red light signals a warning to traffic on the adjacent canal. All craft pull to the side and wait for the passage of the Fireboat. Less than 40 seconds passes from the time the call lights up the switchboard until the fireboat leaves the station.
Normally, one boat is dispatched on an alarm. It is in radio contact with the central control board. As reports come in, other boats—including the district commander’s, a radar-equipped ambulance, or more pump boats from Venice (or outlying districts)—can be dispatched by radio. Although rarely needed, the fire department has a helicopter at the local airport.
The Venetian fireboats contain the variety of equipment found on conventional land apparatus. Ladders line the interior of the craft. A wooden box contains rope, hose, axes, etc. In the after part of the boat is the engine, which propels the boat and drives the fire pump.
The boat carries 25-meter (82 ½-foot) lengths of 45mm (1¾-inch) and 70mm (2 3/4-inch) hose made of hemp fibers (canapa). The hose lines are attached to a four-outlet fitting near the stern of the boat. There is also a booster reel amidship. Water from the canal is pumped at a pressure of about 120 psi normally.
Nuisance of extreme tides
A nuisance is the occasional extremely low tide. There are periods when a low tide does not permit a boat to traverse certain canals. Fortunately, the hours when this occurs are few and a deeper canal is always nearby. However, the boats must stop farther from the fire and longer hose lines must be used. High tides also present problems for fireboats trying to pass under certain bridges. Again, longer lines are used to cover the greater distance when a fireboat can’t get under a bridge.
Any ladder (except aerial) is already on the boat. The ladder most commonly used is the four-section scala Italiana (Italian ladder), which is 10.33 meters (34 feet) long. Rope ladders and roof ladders are used when necessary. Venice is heavily built up with fairly uniform roof heights so fire fighters can climb an undamaged building to the roof, walk across the roof and gain access to the roof of the fire building. Unfortunately, the structural condition that assists the fire fighters also aids burglars.
The most common cause of fire in Venice is a gas explosion. A new law forbids the use of any combustible liquid for heating or cooking so now that is all done with gas. Improper furnace maintenance is apparently the major cause.
While gas-related fires are most frequent, one of the most difficult is tracking down a smoldering spark in a wooden beam. Most of Venice was built before the independence of the United States and bricks, stucco, tile and great wooden beams were the materials used. Sometimes wooden beams have been hidden by restoration. What may seem from the outside to be two separate buildings may be connected by a common beam within the thick walls, floors or ceilings. Once fire penetrates a beam, then the entire beam must be carefully examined to prevent a rekindle.
Venice’s two most famous fires were at the Armenian Convent and the Europa Hotel. But the fire that is most dreaded has, fortunately, not yet taken place. It is the possibility of a fire in the large petroleum refinery complex on the mainland (Marghera) that haunts the fire fighters. Precautions are taken, equipment exists in nearby Mestre, and the fire fighters have the special training which everyone hopes will never be called upon.
Other problems come as a result of the political unrest in Italy. Molotov cocktails are the standard equipment of groups marching for or against some political ideal. It is not uncommon to see fire fighters, hose and riot police intermingled at a demonstration.
Do maintenance work
While Venetian fire fighters respond to about 1000 fires yearly, that, of course, is not their only duty. The fire fighters daily use their trades as all maintenance and repairs to equipment and stations proper are done by them. Between alarms, tasks are assigned to the personnel.
Unfortunately, Venice has a large number of false alarms, mostly from children playing with the phone. Because callers must give their name, address and telephone number, the switchboard operator is usually able to tell whether a call is legitimate. All calls are tape-recorded. (Arson is not a problem in Venice, although 10 years ago a pyromaniac had everyone on edge.)
The national command of the Interior Department, through its regional inspectors, sends fire fighters to disasters of any type. In a country roughly the size of Arizona, fire fighters are dispatched from one end to the other, perhaps to a flood in Sicily or an earthquake in the Fruili region.
University degree required
The man in Venice who is in charge of the station and responsible for carrying out the regional inspector’s directives is the district commander, Lucio Giacomozzi. He is in charge of the Venetian stations as well as the outlying substations. To reach this equivalent of an American municipal fire chief, he had to pass a series of examinations and get a university degree.
Directly under him are the duty officers. There is one on duty in Venice and also in nearby Mestre. They see that the commander’s orders are carried out. They are also involved with fire prevention. They inspect buildings for code violations and in the case of new construction, see that there are adequate exits, sprinklers, and extinguishers. These officers also must have a university diploma, but they are not required to have a trade.
When a request for help is radioed from the scene of the fire, the duty officer decides what should be sent.
Like all fire fighters everywhere, Venetian fire fighters and officers return to their stations after a fire, fill out reports on the last alarm and await the next one.