Madrid, Spain Firefighters Demand More Resources

By George H. Potter

How many fire departments do you know that schedule one 24-hour duty tour followed by five days off, then another duty tour and 120 hours off again? The Madrid, Spain, municipal fire brigade has exactly that schedule, and the troops are in an uproar. They are demanding more personnel, new equipment, and better working conditions, including reduced working hours. So, they have painted slogans (some derogatory) on the sides of the vehicles, where bystanders can see them during emergency responses; have participated in public demonstrations;  and have made declarations to the press not too subtly insinuating that city hall is a “slave driver” and similar remarks.

As many of you may know, Madrid is the capital city of Spain. It has a population of 3,225,950 and an area of just under 234 square miles. The city is the foremost in the country and one of the most important municipalities of Europe. Madrid has more than 210 high-rises, including three 50-plus-story office buildings in a four-tower complex (the fourth tower is 45 floors).
The city fire service is composed of 2,000 personnel. Nearly 1,600 are operational firefighters and officers; the remainder are technical and management staff, including the chief officers. The brigade responds from 12 stations distributed more or less uniformly around the city. Now, take those 1,600 operational firefighters and officers and divide that number by six shifts, and you will get some 266 troops on duty on any given day. Take a couple of dozen or so out for sick leave, vacations, overtime compensation, out-of-town training, and so on, and there are still about 240 to protect the city.  One of the firefighters’ “spokesmen” has declared to the press that the service “is far below the European requirement of one firefighter for every thousand inhabitants.” This is not a requirement or a standard, but a recommendation considered in many countries around the world as ideal. Spanish fire services are in fact below that figure with a national ratio of about one firefighter per 2,300 population (Madrid’s figure is 1:2,050), whereas Germany’s ratio is one firefighter per 68 population.
The majority of Spain’s firefighters are civil service employees; as such, they enjoy a number of benefits and perks that private- sector employees never see. One of the primary benefits, and that which attracts thousands of applicants to the testing processes held annually by most fire services to fill a few hundred slots, is that the civil service is lifetime guaranteed employment. The only way a municipal or regional fire service can reduce staffing is by not replacing retired personnel. A couple of the very few justifications to warrant dismissal from civil service employment are repeated serious disrespect for superiors, continued abuse of sick leave or doing some kind of work while officially on sick leave, or committing serious misdemeanors.
Public service incomes are far from attractive; but, again, there are perks. For one, employees are paid 14 times a year–the monthly salary at the end of each month plus two extra payments, one in July (just in time to cover annual vacation expenses) and the other in December (perfect for Christmas shopping). All Spanish workers are entitled to 22 working days per year for annual vacations, which normally result in a full month of paid holidays. Every three years, they receive a small percentage increase, which accumulates over the years. They also are entitled to four or five days yearly for “personal matters.” Also, when public holidays coincide occur on Tuesday or Thursday, thousands of workers bridge the holiday to total four, and at times even five, straight free days. Spanish labor legislation stipulates that workers are eligible for retirement on reaching the age of 65, except workers in very specific areas, such as mining and commercial fishing and, just recently, firefighters, who can retire at 61 years of age.
To be eligible for maximum retirement pay, a worker must have a minimum of 35 years of payments into the national social security scheme, which covers a broad base of actions: national health coverage, workers’ compensation, retirement benefits, and more.
The Spanish labor unions have pressured the various governments over the years in the areas of minimum wages, health services, and the maximum number of working hours during a year. At this time, that maximum is between 1,780 and 1,830 hours per year (depending on who does the calculations) based on a 40-hour work week. That weekly figure is superior, though, to the 35-hour work week of civil service employees, national, regional, and local governments, and so on (who work 08:00 to 15:00 all year round).
According to the Madrid security director, the city’s firefighters work 64 24-hour duty days per year and have 301 free days. Like firefighters around the world, the Spanish firefighters have second jobs. Some collaborate with private sector training entities to deliver fire safety training to company emergency responders, but the vast majority work in trades related to their professional qualifications as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, taxi drivers, and in fire extinguishers sales and service (this is now considered to be incompatible with their profession). As the salary earned by the public service firefighter is official and controlled by the national internal revenue entity, the second job’s income is not declared and so is not subject to income tax. A firefighter with 10 years of service generally nets around $2,500 monthly (times 14 pay checks) after income tax and social security retentions, resulting in some $35,000 per year (the gross annual income is around $47,600). A number of firefighters bring in another $10,000 or more in second incomes. A common saying in the fire service here is that “a lot of guys go to work in the firehouse in order to rest.”
One aggravation for many fire service managers is getting their troops to participate in training activities that require their presence during off-duty days. “Ah, no way, my off-duty time is for my personal use” is the standard reply. It takes a lot of cajoling to get many of these people to participate in multiday training activities.
In 2002, the World Police and Fire Games were held in Barcelona, Spain’s second most important city and host to the Olympic Games 10 years earlier. Spanish firefighters were astonished when they talked with American, British, German, and other firefighters who claimed, “I’m 44 and retiring next year” and other similar comments. They could not comprehend how their brothers could retire at such early ages while the Spaniards had to work, at that time, until 65.
The answer is quite simple. As stated above, the Spanish labor unions have been able to equate firefighters’ working time on a gross-hour basis–in other words, no more than 40 hours per week or 1,800 or so hours per year. If we consider a lifetime total of working hours at around 60,000, a Spanish firefighter will have to work some 33 years to obtain maximum retirement benefits, whereas the average American firefighter working a 24-hours on/48-hours off schedule will accumulate those 60,000 lifetime working hours in some 24 years. Some Spanish fire services schedule 24 hours on and 96 hours off and even shorter rotations in summer for vacations.

If the Madrid fire service switched to 24/-6 scheduling, the on-duty force would rise to 320, and if they went to a 24/72 schedule, the number of on-duty personnel would be 400. These solutions are far and away out of the question as they collide with the union philosophy that considers the 24-hour-duty shift the total work time. The unions, by the way, have been able to create the figure of “liberated” workers (in all labor areas), which means that these persons have nearly unlimited free time during their scheduled work periods, officially to devote to union matters. It is well known throughout the sector that many of these union agents work in other activities during their supposedly union time.

Meanwhile, the Barcelona municipal fire service had 1,010 firefighters and officers on the roster up until about 15 years ago. A “whiz-kid” consultant convinced the city’s management that the city could save a great deal of money by altering shift schedules, not replacing retirees, and closing several stations and relocating others. The “cost-efective” plan has indeed saved the city several millions of Euros over these years, but the staffing is now less 600 including officers, drivers, firefighters and EMS, all while protecting a municipal population of over 1.6 million inhabitants and one of the most important sea ports of Europe, working a 24-hour duty shift with four and sometimes three days off. They complain, too, but their truck sides and station walls are clean.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association (ASELF).
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