In the Greater Region, “firefighters without borders” are breaking down national barriers

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Sarreguemines-Bitche (France)

When Emmanuel Cycon intervenes on an urgent operation on October 11, 2006, he knows that he must expect the worst: a TER collided head-on with a freight train at Zoufftgen, just 36 meters from the border between Luxembourg and France. The rubble spread across the tracks extends into Luxembourg territory. Thirty people are stuck in the carcasses. But the extent of the relief dispatched to the scene surprises the young firefighter: on the highway, the fire trucks are crowding together. A French helicopter appears, followed by two Luxembourg helicopters, “like in a movie”.

150 firefighters, a hundred gendarmes, fifty emergency vehicles, seven extrication teams: the rescuers of the two countries are mobilized en masse, and the management of the situation is slipping. “Either we walked on each other, or everyone gleaned on their side. It was hard to find common ground.”remembers the firefighter, today lieutenant first class in Metz.

Team working

“At the start, we had the feeling that the French had taken the lead in the intervention, and didn’t really want us on top”, remembers Steve Mack, also mobilized at the time as a volunteer firefighter on the side of Luxembourg. Sixteen years later, having become director of theNational Institute for Rescue Traininghe notes the collegiality that quickly took hold between neighbours: those French colleagues who set up a large mobile kitchen, and those first-aiders who slept on the spot, refusing to leave before all the victims had been taken out.

The toll is heavy: 6 dead and 23 injured, and serious lessons must be learned. “We firefighters could no longer not understand each other and slow down our intervention”explains Franck Laffont, now chief warrant officer in Metz, who was also present at the accident.

Lieutenant 1time class Emmanuel Cycon, support officer at the Moselle SDIS Training Company. | Julie Bourdin

Today, everyone agrees that the emergency services of the two countries would react much better to an accident such as that of Zoufftgen. Cross-border relations are much better, in particular thanks to a “shadow actor”: le Inter’Red project, started in 2018, which brings together Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Germany with the aim of improving emergency services in the Greater Region. Inter’Red is funded to the tune of 3.8 million euros (nearly 60% of the total) by the European Regional Development Fund. The objective: to combine the means and expertise of the relief services of the different countries, to optimize joint interventions.

Strolling through the brand new premises of the National Fire and Rescue Center, in the south of Luxembourg, Steve Mack proudly presents their state-of-the-art equipment. Under a hangar, a fake six-storey building accommodates firefighters during fire training. A train car under a training tunnel used to work train accidents. And in one of the many garages sits the new acquisition financed with funds from Inter’Red: an ambulance-school, a large truck in the colors of Europe, the rear of which accommodates an ambulance cabin stuffed with cameras to assess student performance.

“It is available to all partners, just like the driving simulator that we also purchased”, explains Steve Mack. In neighboring countries, firefighters are eager to practice on this new common equipment, and also to offer their own: the Belgians have notably purchased two drones, a training car and a mobile command post, which must be operational. in October 2022. The Germans are developing a platform to process emergency calls jointly, in order to overcome language problems and facilitate cross-border assistance.

The Luxembourg school ambulance, financed by the Inter’Red fund. | Julie Bourdin

Fires Without Borders

“The problems and human distress do not stop at the border”, notes Captain Olivier Lourson, commander of the Sarreguemines-Bitche company, in Moselle, on the border between France and Germany. At 47, he enjoys having started his career as a firefighter “like Obelix: I fell into it when I was little”.

In thirty-one years of career, he knows well the cross-border risks and the concrete obstacles which slow down the help. An example: German fire hydrants, incompatible with French trucks. “In the commune of Freyming-Merlebach, there is a street whose right side is in France, and the left in Germany: if there is a traffic light on the left side, I don’t go there?”, he quips. Different highway codes, different hierarchical structures and mobile networks that cross the border are all constraints that complicate the daily lives of firefighters, and which Inter’Red wants to face.

In order to settle for good the problem of compatibility of fire hydrants, French firefighters were finally able to buy suitable fittings: they were put into practice recently on a wildfire in Germany, where French all-terrain vehicles could be supplied with water by their German counterparts. But more than the equipment, the members of the project especially appreciate the exchanges between neighbors.

In September 2021, Emmanuel Cycon and Franck Laffont thus took the road to Koblenz, in Germany, to undergo training on operational ventilation, a smoke evacuation technique in the event of a fire. During the two-hour journey, their concerns grew: “We are two countries that still have a history, and we know that we have a different rigor. We expected things to be very square”, remembers Franck Laffont.

On the Luxembourg side too, the guests were asking themselves questions. “But after half an hour, we are all firefighters, we all do the same job, we all have a story to tell”, smiles Steve Mack. The exchanges are ultimately so rich that Emmanuel Cycon is already looking forward to the next joint training sessions: “The heart of our job is to adapt, to always find solutions. And that is only possible by exchanging and going elsewhere: it allowed us to open our blinkers.

A German truck delivers water to a French all-terrain vehicle during a wildfire. | Olivier Lourson

Direct contacts to speed up interventions

Since the beginning of Inter’Red in 2018, there have been many opportunities to put these strengthened relationships into practice: “We intervene in Germany almost three times a week, assure Steve Mack. We had a tornado where French colleagues came with rescue-clearance units, there were floods in Belgium last summer…”

Although Inter’Red is not directly involved, Emmanuel Cycon is convinced that the contact books formed during the meetings play a crucial role: “Now we have short channels: the leader knows the means he needs, and he knows what everyone has, he knows who to call, he just needs the official agreement.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, even as borders reappeared across Europe, the emergency services of the Greater Region continued their mutual assistance, in particular transporting French patients to Germany and Luxembourg. The pace of Inter’Red meetings must have slowed down, and the finalization of the project has been postponed for a year, to the end of 2022, but the results remain positive on all sides.

“A lot has been done, but there are still so many possibilities that this project could last ten years, summarizes Captain Lourson. It has made our daily life easier, but it has also allowed us to dream.” Throughout the crisis, firefighters continued to check in on each other across borders: “Inter’Red has also created friendships.”

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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