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THW: Germany′s army of volunteers for disaster relief (dw.com)
210 points by Tomte 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments

Little known fact (maybe): Emergency services in Germany is largely handled by volunteers.

Police is always paid, no volunteers there.

Paramedics are often paid ("Regelrettungsdienst"), but there are lots of units working on voluntary basis which take care of festivals, larger events and more and are somewhat on stand-by in case the Regelrettungsdienst gets overwhelmed with work.

Firefighters are the most and they are almost always volunteers, the so called "Freiwillige Feuerwehr". As a member of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr you'll have some kind of pager or app to alarm you and people will then leave work and rush to the fire department and man the trucks. Only large cities (> 100k residents, I think) need to have paid firefighters.

Firefighters and Paramedics are also among the jobs with the highest trust/respect with the people in Germany. (Sadly, attacks on those groups from bystanders are steadily climbing...)

These days thousands of people have left their work (your city will pay your employer for the time you had to leave, although most employers don't bill that time) to help take care of the aftermath of the floods, either as Paramedics or Firefighters.

Usually there's no compensation for this work, next to getting something to eat and drink and the equipment.

This is probably quite unique compared to other countries.

Update: Seems like it's not unique to Germany. I appreciate that, thanks for letting me know.

Here are a few additional points to give more context how this volunteering is organized in Germany:

1. Employers have to allow their employees to participate in aid missions and also have to pay them for the time they spend volunteering in an emergency. Employers can get the paid wages back from the respective authority.

2. In my experience the mentioned organizations are often youth organizations similar to sports clubs and are doing a lot of social work apart from emergency, rescue and disaster missions.

3. Historically it wasn't completely voluntary. When I was young every male citizen had to pay a fee if they didn't participate. This was abolished eventually, because of gender equality. Also, compulsory military service (when we still had it) could be avoided by volunteering at least four years in disaster relief.

You can still get drafted as a fire fighter if they don’t find enough volunteers.

Also, the German constitution still forbids military drafting of women (Artikel 12a, (4), GG), so there isn’t a true gender equality in Germany.

I think it's not so different than Australia.

I suppose the SES (State Emergency Service) is the equivalent of the THW, even to the point of being set up at about the same time to help in case of a war but dealing with natural disasters and other incidents that are less dramatic. THW is federal but SES is state, but I'm sure that's trivial.

Police are of course paid.

Paramedics who ride in ambulances attending emergecies are paid - perhaps not enough. But first aid at festivals and larger events are handled by organisations like St Johns Ambulance, which are mostly volunteer-based organisations. It sounds like perhaps it is structurally different, but has the same effect.

Firefighters are divided. Metropolitan firies are usually paid, but in country towns they are volunteer.

I have noticed many similarities between Australia and Germany that seem surprising. Perhaps this is another one to add to that. Maybe it isn't so surprising though. It would seem like every country town couldn't have its own firefighting force if they have only very rare fires or if they are particularly seasonal.

The THW is organised similar to an army and has equipment to restore infrastructure in the event of a catastrophe (natural or man-made) and to build temporary protections if required. Similar to pioneers they can provide quick temporal solutions for power, communications (including telecoms and bridges) and water. They have a very heavy focus on technical solutions and can only provide basic medical assistance. The idea is that the THW restores access to cut-off areas for emergency services and provides protection to prevent the situation deteriorating. Other services use this infrastructure to provide medical and light technical assistance, etc.

I am struggling to find references at the moment, but from what I remember, due to the history of putsches etc, in Germany the army could for a long time not be deployed internally. So while in other countries the actual army pioneers would be called in to clear roads after a flood, this was not possible in Germany. So the solution was to build a civil version of this, which as a side-effect was actually completely independent of the armed forces. Since the army cannot use these capabilities offensively, this structure helps calming twitchy neighbours after starting two world wars in a row. It is one of many examples of decentralisation of powers and capabilities in post WWII Germany.

The lines between different volunteer forces and structures are probably converging globally and most countries have similar capabilities available within their volunteers. Looking up the SES, it seems to be doing a lot of things including heavy lifting and rescuing people from cars crashes. The very specialised THW would only do the first, and (volunteer?) fire services do the second. If that is worth the distinction (and this post), I dont know. But it probably leads to the THW volunteers having much pride in being called in when the equipment of the fire service is not good enough, while seeing very little action and have therefore a lot of time to support the local brewer.

Nitpick: THW has the capabilities (hydraulic spreaders and cutters) and trains for vehicle extrication, but it's true that the fire department usually handles these situations because they are far quicker to arrive. Since vehicle extrication is usually rather time-critical due to the injuries that are to be expected in such accidents, and the fire department has more experience with it, THW rarely does it. Some local chapters do on-call Autobahn shifts (Technische Hilfe auf Verkehrswegen), maybe there?

I think a main difference is, when the army is deployed internally it is never in charge. It is only a supporting role for the civil services.

It’s the same in the US. Most larger cities have paid firefighters but a lot of smaller ones and volunteer.

We also have the Cajun Navy in the Southeast who will help around the Gulf states after Hurricanes. They are mainly small boat owners who will aid in rescuing people stuck in their houses.


How do these volunteers get to their station, suited, and on the way in time for an emergency? Seems to me that a fire crew would be at work in different parts of the city and could take precious time to get equipped and on the way.

There are volunteer crews here in Canada, but they are almost exclusively for smaller towns less than 10k. Not much distance to travel to their station, however a house on my street burned pretty much to the ground waiting for the volunteer crew to arrive.

While most paid firefighters have to be out the door in 60 seconds, voluntary firefighters usually have 10 minutes to do the same. That's a trade-off that has to be made since not every small town can pay for a fully manned 24/7 fire station, especially when there are maybe 10 alarms per month. Some don't even average 1 alarm per month.

The trick to compensate for that is volume. As many stations as possible with only a few vehicles (mostly a single very large truck with 2000 litres of water), so ways are short. Only when something bigger happens, multiple stations will be alerted. Some stations also specialize by having a ladder truck, a hazmat truck, etc.

Volunteers should not be 10 minutes or more away from the station when on call. They can also cross on red in their private vehicle when alerted.

When a house is on fire badly enough to require the fire brigade, it's probably a write-off anyway. Even if the fire is put out promptly, the smoke and water damage will mean every room will need full remodelling, and the roof probably needs replacing. At that point, the cost isn't so different to just knocking it down and building again.

The main benefit the fire brigade offers is the ability to prevent spread to other buildings, and assist people escaping.

If the crew is so late to the scene that the house has essentially burned down:

1) Anyone trapped may end up dying or being severely injured 2) Fire spreads to neighbours (in the case I described the owners and neighbours were hosing down the next door house at their own risk.

Not unique to Germany.

Where I lived in Germany (city of ~300k) the next paid fire brigade was a ways off from our suburb. However, as it was explained to me, house building permits aren't issued if the next paid fire station is too far away (dunno what the time limit is) and volunteer forces don't count into that radius. However we had a volunteer fire brigade right smack middle of town (this isn't the sort of planned American suburb, this was a regular town founded around the year 1100 and the larger city grew into/around it). 3 fire trucks for ~6k inhabitants. 2 minute drive to us. Closest regular fire brigade would have been about a 7 minute drive but part of a rural town 'next door', closest actual city fire station ~15 minutes.

Where I live now in Canada (town of ~20k and growing) it's mainly a volunteer force. We have 6 fire engines + paramedic. There are IIRC a couple of paid firefighters always in the station just in case and the rest are volunteers that are at max allowed to live/work about a 10 minute (IIRC) drive from the station. Been a while since the open house visit. Next town over with a paid fire brigade is about a 12 minute drive from here while the local fire station is a 2 minute drive (without sirens blazing :)) I think they have a good chance of being faster or on par.

On the other hand, that 300k town had its own paramedic services helicopter. Had to unfortunately "make use" of that once. Awesome experience (apart from the medical emergency part). But if you have a medical emergency going on and you start hearing that chopper way before you hear sirens, it's just awesome!

Where I live now (in a millions of people metro area, there is no medical helicopter service whatsoever and traffic is really really bad.

Yes, sounds exactly like it is here in Germany.

And in non-disaster times those voluntary organisations do like to put on gatherings and have a beer or 10... I guess you can add that to the list, too.

> This is probably quite unique compared to other countries.

It works like this in many European countries. When I went to work in Germany and was introduced to the work council as something uniquely German, it was cute too. Good to see my native country isn't the only place that thinks it's a special snowflake though.

As far as I know, the somewhat uniquely German thing about works councils is the power they have and how strongly protected their creation is. But honestly, it’s often hard to keep track of what rights are EU given and which ones are local.

Aren't workers coucils the Betriebsrat?

Unions are more like political parties and workers coucil are more like parts of the government you can get elected to.

You are almost completely right, I deleted that part from my comment. Turns out, it’s very important to distinguish between Workers' council [0] and Works council [1] :D

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers%27_council

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_council

lol, good to know.

Thanks for the heads up :D

the special thing about German works council (Betriebsrat) is that for companies above a specific size 50% of board seats go to people elected by the council. Not the owners.

Someone writes a longer comment to share interesting information. You personally attack them, why? Is this leading to more understanding in the world? On top you try to make Germans look clueless. What for? Is this what HN is for?

Honestly I don't think that was the effect of the comment. The comment seemed to show that every country is a little bit the same - we all think we have our unique problems and our unique institutions, but in reality we're all humans and thinks are a bit the same everywhere.

I think they could have expressed their observations in a nicer way. I don't think you need to collapse into ontological angst either.

Just to add one point, one perc you got for joining the THW or beeing a firefighter was that you didn't have to do the military service at the time it was still compulsory. Now without that many that rely on volunteers struggle to find enough Young people.

Absolutely, yes.

Firefighters start around the age of 10 in Germany, where you compete with soccer clubs and other sports, later on, during puberty, people often lose interest, too...

It's not that easy to keep young people, but I find that more and more "older" people (like around 30) start with the firefighters because they want to take part in the life in their village and what not. So, there's hope.

Volunteering in rescue services (DLRG is another one that is particularly relevant in this disaster, and the German Red Cross (DRK) is another big one) is generally a great way to go out and meet people to be honest. I neither have the time nor physical fitness for it but I know some volunteers and they certainly know how to have a good time.

I think volunteering is also more common in rural areas. A lot of times volunteer trainings are done as youth activities (e.g. the DLRG does a lot of swimming related activities so it's a good option if you enjoy swimming as a sport).

> It's not that easy to keep young people, but I find that more and more "older" people (like around 30) start with the firefighters because they want to take part in the life in their village and what not. So, there's hope.

With a long life of "tech nomading" I'm pretty comfortable living alone and in strange environments. But the older I get the more I feel unfulfilled due to lack of real community around, contributing to it, taking ownership and responsibility in it. I guess that happens to those 30 year olds in Germany as well.

While moving around is getting more common, i think it's still way less than in US Tech. Also the distances are so much smaller munich - hamburg is only 6 hours.

My favorite "Americans vs Europeans" joke:

Q: What's the difference between an American and a European person?

A: A European thinks 100 km is a large distance. An American thinks a hundred years is a long time.

I definitely qualify as a European in this regard; "only 6 hours" is super long to travel for me.

I like that one a lot. My other favorite (as an American) is:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?

A: American

I recently read it takes around 12 hours just to drive through Texas, the same time it takes to drive from Munich to Barcelona.

But "rural" Germany with its village structures are harder to penetrate if you move to a town, probably.

So either you join the sports club or the firefighters to find your place in the new town. ;-)

And your going to be the new guy for the rest of your live.

If only that... my parents moved into the village i was born in 40 years ago, and even I WAS BORN THERE i a am still one of the "Newwe" (the "new ones" in the local dialect)

Compulsory military service actually has not been abandoned in Germany, it’s still written down in the constitution.

It’s just put out of order for an indefinite amount of time.

> Firefighters are the most and they are almost always volunteers, the so called "Freiwillige Feuerwehr". As a member of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr you'll have some kind of pager or app to alarm you and people will then leave work and rush to the fire department and man the trucks. Only large cities (> 100k residents, I think) need to have paid firefighters.

Germany has three kinds of firefighters: volunteer, fulltime and conscripted.

I've never heard of conscripted firefighters ("Pflichtfeuerwehr"), but apparently it's possible to call upon able persons, i.e. if the village is to small and not enough volunteers exist.

Usually the mere announcement of such a plan is enough to find enough volunteers but there do exist a handful of such conscripted firefighter troops. Often this is necessary after a mass resignation of volunteers such as in Helsa, Hessia this year.

This is actually quite similar to Singapore. Except here Conscripts make the majority with full time firefighters closely behind. There are a few volunteer firefighters, but they are a few. I myself was a conscript, it was a very valuable experience. I guess one thing holding back people from volunteering is the work culture here. Also in general firefighters aren't as well respected (which is kind of really sad).

Here in austria we have volunteer, fulltime and company firefighters. Altough wikipedia says those exist for germany too.

And apparently germany has a "Werkfeuerwehr" too, which is different too.


attacks on those groups from bystanders are steadily climbing

Do we know why? I can understand why people might attack the cops (not saying it is right), but paramedics? Firefighters? These people literally save our lives while putting themselves in danger.

This type of attacks is growing in the UK too. According to the news, sometimes people deliberately set fire, call 999 and attack the firefighters when they arrive. I truly don't understand this at all.

I would simply argue: general entitlement. There is no respect anymore for anything else than yourself (and in some cases not even that). Violence reacting to a denial (e.g. step back, do not watch, do not make photos) is just a extreme case.

You can see that in anti-vaccers, Karens, lack-of-volunteering, lack-of-club-memberships, SUV-driving (I sit higher than you so I survive), looting, demolitioning, etc. You could further enumerate this.

ps: Please do not see this political, this behavior is visible in the whole spectrum of people.

I am having a hard time believing it is just simple entitlement - most people who are anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, verbally abuse waiters, cashiers etc tend to be bullies. They tend to just pick people who usually can't fight back and run away when their victims do fight back. I doubt they'd have the balls to pick a fight with firefighters.

It would take a special kind of arsehole to set fire, call 911/999, wait for them to come, then physically attack the firefighters. There is something else going on here.

When you have a nice legal insurance a hit back from a firefighter is not a problem.

It’s mostly immigrants who grew up in Europe with the idea that the state is the enemy. Firefighters and paramedics are an extension of the state so they are targets. Often they set a trash can or something on fire to lure firemen then proceed to encircle them from all sides. Throwing rocks and other stuff.

I haven't heard about that. Source? I've heard stories about paramedics being bothered by gazers.

> Firefighters? These people literally save our lives while putting themselves in danger.

It is the same in Belgium. In Brussels a few months ago there have been several incidents where gang of young people would purposely set something on fire (including a nursery: thankfully they did it at night when nobody was around) then they attack the firefighters once they arrive.

The targets were a nursery, random people's cars and firefighters.


That's bullshit.

I've often been harassed during my service as a firefighter. It's never been by immigrants or else, but by "the elders of the village" and people alike who could not accept that a road was blocked or we did not want them to run around the place where we were currently working.

Sorry, but it's equally bullshit to deny that this is happing just because you never experienced it.

Multiple times a year Danish and Swedish media report that paramedics and firefighters are attacked by immigrants or descendents of immigrants in certain areas.

It's not because they are immigrants, Muslims or have brown skins. Something else is going on, but no one cares to find out what that might be, because it might cost money to fix the issue. Blaming peoples origin or beliefs is much easier than fixing a real problem and heaven forbid you where to do something that made the life of immigrants better, people might not vote for you again.

You're right, sorry.

please enlighten us, i certainly don’t know..

Some people in Poland, one of the whitest and mono-ethnic countries out there in Europe are quite racist/xenophobic.

AFAIK volunteer firefighting is the rule everywhere in Europe. In France we have volunteers, professionals and military firemen (with more specialized / intensive tasks).

We have reserves of volunteers for emergency health care and so on (for example they're being used for vaccination right now), working on the same principles as the ones you have described.

AFAIK in Spain is all professional. We do have an emergencies military unit too (UME - Unidad Militar de Emergencias) which does mostly firefighting and disaster relief. The military also can build hospitals and such, and it happened under the pandemic, but it's not the UME but something else.

Small municipalities pool their resources, at least around my area.

The only voluntary service we have is the Red Cross and Protección Civil.

I'm not 100% sure on this, but professional emergency services are definitely common.

> AFAIK volunteer firefighting is the rule everywhere in Europe.

I've got a friend who's an occasional firefighter in Belgium, in addition to his regular job. He's not an unpaid volunteer: I don't know how it works exactly regarding the pay but I know that once he'll reach the age where he'll stop working, he'll get two monthly pensions paid (the regular one + one because he was a firefighter).

In France they get paid hourly rates, with +50% for Sundays and holidays and +100% for nights.

Of note: they're not paid, they're compensated.

Which is why only officers have a base comp' above the minimum legal salary, the lowest rank gets 8.08 (euros) (the minimum legal salary is 10.25), but it's tax-free.

And that's on active duty (which doesn't necessarily mean on-site, it might be training or admin or whatever), when on-call it's generally half-that (legally anyway, some places give volunteers more).

Ah, interesting. I only knew that in France firemen are part of the military, I thought it was that way all over France.

About 5% of the firemen in France are part of the military. The most well known being those of Paris and Marseille.

Possibly I'm biased by a former French firefighter who lives a few houses away and likes to tell stories from his service. He was with the military firefighters...

> Only large cities (> 100k residents, I think) need to have paid firefighters.

Depends on the state.

Where I'm living now (Northrhine-Westphalia) we're far below 100k, but we have a professional fire brigade.

We also have the volunteer fire brigade.

And one chemical factory has their own fire brigade, which also helps out throughout the town whenever something special (i.e. chemical) is happening or everyone else is busy.

Yes, this also depends heavily on local aspects like companies, roads or else.

Firefighters are loosing trust somewhat because of the culture they've grown in the volunteer groups.

I tried to join my local volunteer group a few years ago, to help out in my community, was like 12 people back then. Sadly after the leader of the group dropped a hard-r N-word followed by complaints about certain ethnicities and half the group chimed in with "hear hear", I left as quickly as I could.

> Police is always paid, no volunteers there.

Baden-Wuerttemberg does have a voluntary police, but they are no longer accepting candidates since 2011.


> The voluntary police service has existed in Baden-Württemberg since 1963. It currently consists of 576 (as of June 30, 2020) citizens who, through their voluntary work, support the police enforcement service in the protection of events and in the area of prevention, among other things.

> The police volunteers have the position of a police officer within the meaning of the Police Act and therefore generally wear uniform. Since they too can come into the position of having to protect their own life or the life of another, they are equipped with a pistol and other means of coercion.

> The decision of the previous state government in 2011 to terminate the voluntary police service is being corrected by the incumbent state government.

TIL: Other states do have this as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freiwilliger_Polizeidienst

It isnt unique, in Poland there is also bunch of volunteer fire departments, much more than fire departments with regular salary. https://pl.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ochotnicza_stra%C5%BC_po%C5%...

> Only large cities (> 100k residents, I think) need to have paid firefighters.

And even those cities often have volunteer firefighter departments. Berlin has multiple, roughly one per district.

Volunteer firefighters in cities are often used to fill up the rows of the paid ones or to relieve them, so they can return to standing by for the next alarm and ensure short reaction times.

That's at least how it works in the city where my brother is working as a firefighter and I think it's comparable all over Germany.

> Police is always paid, no volunteers there.

You would think so, but actually there is some sort of "Freiwilliger Polizeidienst" in several german states. Though only in Baden-Württemberg they are part of police proper: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freiwilliger_Polizeidienst

Re: firefighters: It's same in Slovenia, and most ex Yugoslavia.

We also have similar organizations for mountain rescue, and avalanche rescue dogs, divers ...

This is organised similarly in the UK. Volunteer "retained firefighters" [1] mostly cover rural areas, and full-time crews cover towns and cities.

There are also volunteer police officers called "special constables" [2]. Mountain rescue is also provided by volunteer teams, as is lifeboat maritime rescue, with helicopter support from the coast guard (which also uses volunteers...)

Interesting how many countries converge on the same approaches.

[1] https://www.fireservice.co.uk/recruitment/retained-firefight...

[2] https://www.college.police.uk/career-learning/career-develop...

Are you aware of any volunteer org in the UK that specializes in providing technical support for disaster relief?

I am currently looking of joining a volunteer group to make a difference to the community while potentially picking up some skills along the way. If I was still in Germany I would have joined the THW, but in the UK I have not found an org that does the occasional heavy lifting. I considered volunteer fire brigade, but I don't think physiology I would be able to handle smoke very well, so fire fighting would not be a good fit for me. Mountain rescue is alright as a community function, but I would miss out on working with heavy machinery.

The only such org I'm aware of is the ham radio group Raynet:



What I didn't know for a long time, if a city has no volunteers the city can conscrupt random people to firefighting service.


You can actually be drafted as a firefighter in Germany if they don’t find enough volunteers.

Also, larger cities have professional fire fighters, of course, volunteer firefighters are more a rural thing.

A couple of examples from the UK that I am familiar with of charitable organisations who provide completely awesome services:



I'm sure there are many more in the UK and other countries.

Maybe nice to note: Even in cities where there are paid firefighters, there are almost always still more voluntary firefighters that respond mostly during night times if there is a demand for them.

> This is probably quite unique compared to other countries.

Nope. Same thing exists in Poland, and from what I've heard even in some non-European countries.

Does anyone know why this is the case? Genuinely curious.

One would imagine the high tax rates in such EU countries can afford to have paid disaster relief troops.

It's just prohibitively expensive to pay a lot of people full time who for long periods of time do nothing. Even if it's just part time, it can be quite expensive. Especially when you want to pay of other things like welfare too.

E.g. if you're a smallish village (say <1000 people), you cannot afford to pay a living wage to the 10 people or so you will need at least to fight a good sized fire, especially if a fire too big for a regular fire extinguisher happens once every few years.

You could of course pay those 10 people to look after a bunch of villages at the same time, but then you get a lot of fighting about where they will be actually located, etc.

In larger cities or on factory grounds it makes sense of course to keep a permanent paid staff because "enough" bad things keep happening, and especially with certain kinds of factories you want expert firefighters specially trained for certain types of events (like large scale chemical fires).

In a lot of smaller places the community also wants to keep volunteer fire fighters, as they are basically the only "community thing" happening at all, especially since churches and church activities become less and less popular.

Volunteer fire fighters are a tradition.

It's rather common around where I live that each village of more than a few houses does an "Easter Fire"[1] event once a year (of course), and those things are quite commonly organized by the volunteer firefighters who then use the profits from selling beer and food to fund their group's fun activities over the year, be it buying beer, soda and snacks for their regular meetings, be it a foosball table, and minor things like that. And that Easter Fire event often times really is the only major event happening at all during the year in that village.

Other volunteer organizations like the THW (mostly disaster relifef) or the DLRG (volunteer-ish life guards) are considered important for community building as well. And it's always good to have a lot of people around who at least have basic training in these kinds of things should the far fewer paid professionals be overwhelmed in case of major disasters like the flooding right now.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Fire

I understand the supply-demand problem, of course disasters are rare and few in number in remote areas.

To rephrase, why can’t the gov actually pay the volunteers? It seems weird that they are given snacks and water, in exchange for dangerous labor.

well they kind of do.

if you are employed and a volunteer firefighter your company has to let you go if an emergency breaks out AND they have to continue paying you. so you keep your normal wages during your service times.

then they can claim (varying in exact detail from state to state) these costs and get money from the goverment

Honestly, this is just as bad as not paying, IMHO.

Why do people working in extenuating circumstances, providing disaster relief that is crucial to society, not get paid? Continuing to get your normal wages is the bare minimum. Companies benefit from restoring society, otherwise, they can forget about business continuity.

Seems to me that the people are being exploited. I guess this has worked historically, so locals don’t see anything wrong with it. But as an outsider, it’s super weird.

Is it different elsewhere then?

In the Netherlands, about 15% of firefighters are paid; in most other European countries I know of it's less.

One other difference between Germany and the Netherlands is that the Netherlands also has volunteers at the police. Those people often work 2 days in the week and get a small compensation for it. They are given the option to work fulltime and get paid fulltime when they do that for a few years. Next to that they must follow all the same trainingen en exercises as a normal police officers.

> Sadly, attacks on those groups from bystanders are steadily climbing...

How is that? What kind of idiot would attack firefighters or paramedics?

Little known fact: you can be forced to be a `voluntary` firefighter - in case there are not enough real volunteers in your area.

volunteer fire brigades are also quite common in (very) small towns in the USA. it's a bit like a social club. the fire station serves as a sort of public gathering hall as well.

It would be interesting to have a table comparing how this works across countries.

In the UK:

- Police are mostly professional, but there are voluntary special constables [1]; ~130k professionals, ~10k specials [2]

- Firefighters are kind of all professional; most are full-time, but some are "on call", having other jobs, but running off to put out fires when needed (and being paid for it) [3]. On-call firemen are often the only cover in rural areas. About 20k full-time, 10k on-call [4].

- Ambulance staff are almost all professional. There are volunteers, but a small number [5]. However there is also the St John Ambulance, a medical charity that does some ambulance-esque things, including providing first aid at public events [6]. Air ambulances are completely separate and operated by local charities [7] [8], so not available everywhere in the country.

- Mountain rescue, cave rescue, and sea rescue are all entirely charitable volunteer organisations. Search and rescue helicopters used to be provided by the RAF, but are now a private service contracted to the coastguard.

- We don't have any equivalent of the THW, as far as i know. The fire service do some kind of disaster relief, particularly if it involves pumping water. But for the rest of it, there just isn't any systematic response.

[1] https://www.met.police.uk/car/careers/met/police-volunteer-r...

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/...

[3] https://oncallfire.uk/wp-content/uploads/On-call-firefighter...

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/fire-and-rescue-wor...

[5] https://www.londonambulance.nhs.uk/working-for-us/volunteeri...

[6] https://www.sja.org.uk/what-we-do/

[7] https://theairambulanceservice.org.uk/

[8] https://www.londonsairambulance.org.uk/

> We don't have any equivalent of the THW, as far as i know. The fire service do some kind of disaster relief, particularly if it involves pumping water. But for the rest of it, there just isn't any systematic response.

Typically if large scale disaster response is needed the army will be called in, when there was flooding in the town I lived a while back they turned up to fill and distribute sandbags, and worked with the fire brigade to get temporary flood defences put up.

Interestingly the THW also operates the "virtual operations support team" (VOST). This group of volunteers is monitoring social media and detecting fake news with specialized software in order to aid crisis relief efforts. https://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Einsaetze/nationa...

We have something similar in Denmark which is a agency under the defence ministry. Though compared to THW they are only around 1/3 volunteers, 1/3 conscripts not wanting to be in the military and the rest is normal payroll staff. They also man the big pumps when it is needed and such here.


When Germany still had mandatory military service, volunteering in the THW or firefighters for at least 10 years counted as having served.

The same was true for volunteer firefighters (although I vaguely remember that it was less than 10 years).

First time I'm hearing about this. Interesting! There was also the option for non-weapon volunteering services, which is what I did. If I knew about THW and that the time would count as well, then I might have done that instead.

I think you meant 10 months.

No, 10 years, but only for regular weekend exercises (5 times a year or so) plus being on call for emergencies. Whereas military service or other civil service (typically helping in some hospital or care facility) was a 8 to 24 month block of duty, just like any other care worker or soldier.

THW was seen as the really easy way out of the draft (if you could get a spot), because emergencies were rare and weekend exercises were "easy". Informally THW stood for "Trinken, Helfen, Weitertrinken", "Drinking, Helping, Continued Drinking".

What I feel makes it confusing is that it is not clear how you can have 10 years of volunteer firefighting at the age when you are eligible for mandatory military service.

I believe that the other commenters said that you could "commit" to being a volunteer for 10 years and thus could avoid mandatory military service. This is the part that was not clear.

How it worked was: you got mustered for the draft at 17 or 18, and depending on whether you finished school you got your draft notice between 18 and 20. At any point you could declare being a conscientious objector and apply for a spot at THW, firefighters or some care org. Spots at THW and firefighters were rare and sought after, and especially during the cold war you only got them through connections or with special reasons (important job you couldn't interrupt for en-bloc service). You also couldn't just apply to any village fire brigade because there was a mandatory number of exercises and trainings many of them couldn't provide. When you got accepted for a fire brigade or THW, you went to trainings and exercises. Every few months you had to report signed confirmations of those trainings and exercises. If you failed to report in time and sufficient number, because you didn't care, were unable, got thrown out, you could be drafted for military or civil en-bloc service after all.

I think it was 4 years in the end, but it was probably longer in earlier years (since the mandatory service was repeatedly shortened over the decades).


Yeah it was reduced from 6 to 4 years in Dec 2010.


Shortly after, in July 2011, the requirement for Wehrdienst was dropped altogether. Can't access older versions but there has been a history of reductions in lengths for the "normal" Wehrpflicht, so it probably followed suit: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wehrpflicht_in_Deutschland#Bun...

Pretty sure it was 7 years when I was drafted and it's the reason I didn't want to commit, but preferred to "waste" the 9 months in one bloc.

I’m fairly certain it was 10 when I was drafted, but draft was at least 11 month back then and civil service at least 13.

The biggest issue wasn’t the 10 years requirement but rather that when you somehow couldn’t fulfill it (moving or such), the time would reset and might be wasted.

Back when I was presented with that choice, I was entertaining it briefly. But I knew that I would move away to go to university. That, and the fact that 7 years seem like a very long time when you're 18 made me decide against it.

It wasn't that simple.

There was military service, which was the shortest.

The there was civil service which was longer.

Then there was disaster relive service which was even longer. But you only had to train every other weekend or so and help at disasters and not do it full time in one swing.

It was a higher years number. But when you are a dedicated firefighter (and most are), 10 years are just the beginning of your service. So the people who avoided military subscription by that made a good deal actually.

When I remember right, 3-4 out of my class avoided subscription like that (many on other ways).

As others have already answered, no. You may think of it, in military terms, as straight to reservist state.

Practically no-one is conscripted any more. There is usually 1-2 year wait list to go in and spend 9 months before Uni and the like.

I'm one of those volunteers in "DEMA". It varies by region how and how much the volunteers are used. I usually respond to the oddball police ect. support if my SWE job allows, but try to focus on our international capacities. USAR, ICT/camp/water-purification support for EU/UN management teams, satellite internet ect. My colleges ran a camp in Sierra Leone wrt. ebola, went to US Virgin Islands after the storm, I went to Sweden to fight forest fires and stuff like that.

I have friends and family ask why I spend the time, not just on calls, but education, gear maintenance and the like instead of focusing even more on my career and day job. The answer isn't rational, but it just gives me experiences I wouldn't get any other way. I grew up learning to inherently help people if asked to without question and probably wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't helping others. But at least when I need to justify it to my conscious self, I circle back to the egoistic view of how it benefits me as well.

Fun fact, the closer you get to Germany in the southern part of mainland Denmark, the closer the local fire departments start to look like the German "Freiwillige Feuerwehr". The culture there is just much more "everybody in the area that can, responds to the alarm".

> The primary firefighting work in Denmark are done by municipal fire departments and all municipalities are required by law to have a fire department. [...] The municipalities does not have to do the firefighting themselves, and a large part of the fire department services are done by the private firm Falck A/S.

> The company was founded in 1906 by Sophus Falck after he witnessed and volunteered at a fire at the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1884. The lack of organization made a big impression on him, and motivated the creation of Falck later on in 1906. His mission was to help others in emergency situations. [...] Falck funds its acquisitions and capital expenditures out of its own operating cash flows. The majority of the company is owned by two Nordic-based nonprofit foundations: Lundbeck, a global pharmaceutical company, and the KIRKBI Group, a 75% holder of The Lego Group.

This is all deeply strange to Anglo-Saxon eyes!

So, a lot of fire services (and ambulance services), are outsourced to a private organisation, but that private organisation is itself sort of a public service organisation, and is owned by two charitable trusts. The Lundbeck Foundation inherited Hans Lundbeck's share of his pharmaceutical company, so very like the Wellcome Trust in the UK, and KIRKBI was founded by the current head of the Lego clan.

To what extent is this just for-profit privatisation, as we know in English-speaking countries, and to what extent is this some strange intermingling of private structures and public service?

Several of the well-known Danish brand companies have a significant part of them owned by a foundation. Novo (infamous for high insulin prices in US!) has 28% of it owned by a foundation, with assets of $65B. Similar with Mærsk, Lundbeck, Carlsberg, LEGO and even the window-maker Velux: https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_over_danske_fonde_efter_...

> This is all deeply strange to Anglo-Saxon eyes! ... English-speaking countries

Is it though? Is it so different than public hospitals and schools owned by the Catholic church? I think there are even hospitals that are half public and half private.

I think most major areas have their own public firebrigrade, if I remember correctly Falck will manage the smaller firestations though they are still manned by large with volunteers.

It sounds like not-for-profit privatisation?

I think there used to be a lot more of this in the UK, but the postwar settlement involved nationalizing almost all of it, including all the volunteer organizations that popped up during the war. E.g. the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_Fire_Service

Apart from the standard rescue groups, there are dozens of different specialist groups which are distributed among the chapters in each region[1]: bridge building, electrical supply, lighting, communications, infrastructure, food and material logistics, search and rescue, oil control, debris clearing, demolition, drinking water supply, water rescue, pumps, water level monitoring, follow-up care and more!

[1] https://www.thw.de/DE/Einheiten-Technik/Fachgruppen/fachgrup... (in german only unfortunately)

Here's a map of all chapters: https://i.imgur.com/m89gQwQ.jpg

Trinken, helfen, weitertrinken

    T - trinken (drink)
    H - helfen (help)
    W - weitertrinken (continue to drink)

for the uninitiated ... the drinking part is about alcohol. and I can confirm that especially Freiwillige Feuerwehr orgs enjoy a firmly embedded drinking culture.

Almost all german Clubs, be it sports clubs or musician corps have a "firmly embedded drinking culture". Though it's different with the Freiwillige Feuerwehr.

The Freiwillige Feuerwehr is not a club. It's an institution of the municipality.

But some volunteer fire brigades have also a club to finance the fire brigade through donations and member fees. The members of the fire brigade are also members of the club, so they are partly paying for their own services and equipment.

In Czech/Slovak republic the Firemen's Ball is legendary once a year ball/party. Also they organize a lot of cultural/sport activities in tonw/villages. Drinking is so widespread that you don't need to distinguish the the voluntary firemen from the rest of the population :)

Interesting, so that’s what the film was based on.

There is a strong history of volunteer disaster relief organisations in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, from local Red Cross, Alpine and Automobile Clubs to voluntary fire brigades. Interesting and a bit different than the us def of NGO, that sometimes leads to misunderstandings...

Volunteers always outnumber paid emergency workers. This the case in most countries. In Australia, the volunteers from the State Emergency Service and the Rural Fire Service would be about 70-80% of all personnel for emergencies.

In fact, you have to pay for most of your own safety equipment. One of the weirder things is the most effective logistics support comes from people from the Sikh religion. If there is a fire, flood or any problem Turbans 4 Australia are onsite cooking vegetarian food for anyone who needs it, victims, police, SES and firefighters.T4A not only does not get paid but they pay for all the food.

Very interesting.

Here in New Zealand we saw the very quickly crowd-sourced mashup called Student Volunteer Army(SVA) in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.

THW appears to be an organisation more thoughtfully designed and more generously funded.

I had the chance to meet with SVA founders.

This type of org is low cost, medium reward.

Very cool with lots of scope for building more resilient communities.

Our volunteers are doing what they can, however the Government still owes us some answers: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/19/german-village...

"Even though the European Flood Awareness System (Efas) sent out specific warnings for the worst-hit German regions four days before the start of the downpour, the ensuing flash floods still appeared to have taken the majority of residents by surprise."

Another example that humans are not all about profit. Little known fact, if there aren't enough volunteers for the voluntary fire brigade then citizens could be forced to do the service.

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