Volunteers can be of any nationality as long as they live in France, and the organisation is keen to point out that they do not have to be young, muscly supermen – just people in basic good health.
Marie-Françoise Woodward has both French and British nationality and joined four years ago when she was 47.
She says being a volunteer firefighter is an amazing thing to do: “I love it more than I could have imagined.
“You cannot deny the basic usefulness of it and you feel you are doing something completely significant.
“It is a great way of becoming integrated, because you are part of a team and you help people in your community.”
She joined when she realised she needed to learn more about first aid. “It is remote, where I live in the Lot, and when my daughter was ill and had difficulty breathing one night, I had to wait for two hours for the doctor. The nearest hospital was half an hour away.
“A friend said a lot of sapeur pompier work is first aid-based and persuaded me to join.”
Some 73% of sapeur pompier work is as an emergency ambulance service. Only 6% is for fires, 6% for road accidents and 15% for other activities, such as responding to natural disasters.
New recruits face 35 days of training. After the first 10 days, which focuses on first aid, volunteers can go on-call.
Mrs Woodward said: “We carry a pager with us, which tells the station whether we are available or not. For example, if I am alone at home with my children I will not be called up.
“If I am free, as soon as I get the call, I drop everything, get in the car, go to the station, change, find out what the
mission is and we’re off.
“We are usually a team of four with an experienced chief and when we get to the scene we have to make a medical assessment, give first aid and decide whether to take the person to hospital or not.” Colonel Yves Marcoux is responsible for volunteer firefighters in the Lot and says 930 out of 1,000 people working for the sapeurs pompiers in his department are volunteers.
“The country could not afford to have round-the-clock professionals on duty for many stations. We are always looking for new members.”
Volunteers must be on call for one weekend and a few nights every month. You need to live within 10km of a fire station and speak French well.