JOHN Hoyland from Parthenay, Deux-Sèvres, was a fire fighter for 30 years in Hemel Hempstead before he arrived in France 11 years ago with his wife Maureen, thinking he had retired.
“But my neighbour turned out to be a professional fire fighter so when I was asked by a British magazine to write about the French service, off I went to meet everybody and that was it!
“Fire fighters all over the world are just one big family so the minute I walked through the door I started getting involved.”
He even started writing articles in French for a retired-firefighters’ magazine published by the French fire services - and one thing led to another.
“I started suggesting we could do some awareness raising about preventing fires, and once they realised I was serious and would do it for free, they were keen.
“After about four years, I joined the new équipe de soutien and they gave me a uniform. The idea is that retired fire fighters can do jobs like informing people about fire prevention, legislation, situating smoke alarms and other duties the firefighters haven’t time for.”
At 68, John has no intention of giving up the role. “Next year, in the run up to domestic smoke alarms becoming obligatory, I expect to be even busier.
I’ve never attended a fire in France but I am on standby in case there’s a fire involving English speakers.”
Phil and Denise Warren moved to Loudéac, Côtes-d’Armor, five years ago.
In the UK, having been invalided out of the fire service after an knee injury, Phil had been working in a hospice. “When I arrived in France I started work as a carer then I saw an ad in the village asking for volunteer firefighters so I went to talk to them and it’s true, fire fighters welcome each other the world over.”
His previous experience in the role did not count, he says. “I had to start the training from scratch. To get qualified you have to do five two-week blocks of training over between one and three years.
Everyone also has to do four hours’ training a month, to keep up to date.” He also did a driving course so he could drive the fire engine and the ambulance.
“All in all, it took me three years to get qualified,” he says. “So far, I’ve attended fires just as a driver but now my training is completed I’ll be on call for everything.
But 85% of callouts are for the ambulance. Rural life in France might look idyllic but being a pompier is quite an eye opener. There are serious car accidents, suicides, drug problems, older people falling ill... a farmer had a fatal accident with a quad bike.
But there are positive things too, such as cutting people out of wrecked cars and once, we delivered a baby. We don’t rescue animals out of trees, but we do organise social events, like a sauerkraut soirée for 900 people.
“About 25% of our brigade are women, and we’d be happy to welcome more. And it’s a great way to improve your French. I’ve leaned some good swear words!”
Chris and Sally Pearson live in Saint Claud, Charente, and Chris has been a fire fighter for the past six years. “My degree is in arts and sculpture, and I’m a carpenter by trade, so I’d never done anything like it before,” he says.
“When we arrived, I didn’t speak much French but I was determined to integrate so I organised an arts and music festival and as a result the local fire chief recruited me!”
The fire chief was keen to have more English speakers in the teams because there are so many expats living in the area, Chris explains.
They can manage in English, but it’s easier to calm someone down when you speak the same language.”
It took over 400 hours of training, spread over three years, to qualify. “Doing written paramedical exams in French was the hardest. I failed first time round, so in
the end I learned it by the book. It was a good way of learning French!”
He says that 80-90% of the callouts are for ambulances, and around 15% of the work is cutting people out of cars, so only around 5% is actually fire fighting.
“I really enjoy it, although it’s time consuming so you need an understanding family. We used to have 36 volunteers but now after a lot of retirements there are only 27 so we’re on call more often which means we cannot be more than three minutes away from the station.”
He would recommend volunteering. “I was honoured to be asked. I moved here to join the community and give something back, and this is a great way of doing that.” He says the hardest part is messy car accidents.
“I’ve seen things I never thought I’d see and I had a knife pulled on me once, which was scary.
On the up-side, I like saving people’s lives. There’s an adrenaline rush when the beep goes off, and you know someone really needs you.
How to volunteer
VOLUNTEERS can be men or women and do not need to be French or even speak perfect French.
The government’s website says you must be reasonably fit and aged 18-56 - although there can be roles for older people.
Volunteers aged 16-18 can apply with parental consent.
Volunteers are paid expenses of €7.45 an hour (increasing as people move up the grades) and after 20 years you can build up a small pension.
You also get free insurance and top up health insurance. Visit your local fire station to apply.