Baltic states modernize fire services amid Eastern Europe security concerns
The three Baltic states have intensified efforts to modernize their fire services and acquire additional vehicles and equipment for their firefighters amid increased security concerns in Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula by Moscow in March 2014, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all moved to increase their spending on the armed forces and other national emergency and rescue services.
In each of the three countries, which have an aggregate population of slightly more than six million, volunteer firefighters play a significant role in ensuring the services’ operational capacities. The Baltic states regained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and joined NATO in 2004 but, similarly to the equipment used by their armed forces, the countries’ fire services are often forced to rely on gear that dates back to the Soviet times. This animates the current drive to modernize and upgrade the conditions in which their firefighters operate.
Lithuania Invests in New Fire Stations
Among the three Baltic States, the largest development projects are currently carried out by Lithuania, which is also the Baltic country with the largest population at close to 2.9 million. The Lithuanian State Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) currently employs a workforce of some 4,689. Of these, 3,977 are firefighters and a further 712 are public servants and contract employees, according to data released by the service. At county level, County Fire and Rescue Boards are charged with coordinating regional efforts, and they oversee municipal fire and rescue services that operate in cities and districts.
In Marijampolė, a municipality located in Lithuania’s southern part, the city’s fire station was overhauled in May 2017 under an investment worth about €630,000 (US $750,000). This allowed the city to upgrade the facility that was built in 1985 and has not been thoroughly modernized since its opening. Owing to this, the fire station did not comply with the existing safety regulations, and a number of adjustments needed to be performed. The construction work included renewing the facility’s interior, enhancing the garage ventilation systems, and improving the building’s insulation, as reported by local media.
In addition to the ongoing projects to overhaul Lithuanian fire stations, another initiative aims to procure new equipment for the country’s firefighters. In Neringa, in Lithuania’s western part, the municipal fire department received a new Mercedes-Benz firefighting vehicle under an acquisition worth more than €27,000 (US $32,000), which allowed it to replace its outdated truck. Raimondas Žičkus, the department’s head, said at the official ceremony that the new vehicle is enabled with a significantly higher capacity to store some 2,800 liters (740 gallons) of water.
On a related note, in 2017 a new fire station was also opened in Kupiškis, a municipality in Lithuania’s northeastern part, in close proximity to the country’s border with Russia. As part of the investment, the station was fitted with a new firefighting vehicle of an undisclosed brand.
Speaking at the official opening ceremony in Kupiškis, Tomas Žilinskas, the then Lithuanian Minister of the Interior, said that, while the country has entered the third decade of its independence, an opening of a new fire station is still a noticeable event because the conditions in which Lithuanian firefighters operate are demanding and need to be further upgraded by the authorities.
Lithuania’s efforts to enhance its firefighting capacities have been largely supported by funds obtained from the European Union (EU) Cohesion Funds. Lithuania has been a member of the EU since 2004, when it gained access to various financial support programs distributed by Brussels, Belgium.
The structural funds that Lithuania’s Ministry of the Interior has acquired from the EU have facilitated investments such as the fire department built in the country’s capital Vilnius, located on the west bank of the Neris river. Opened in 2012, the facility was fitted with a total floorspace of some 4,100 square meters (12,300 feet), and it comprises an emergency response center (ERC) and a fire station. The ERC is in the building’s upper part, while the ground floor of the facility hosts the fire station along with the garages. The Lithuanian Fire and Rescue Department says that the investment was required to ensure that the six firefighting crews responsible for protecting the city’s Old Town, Antakalnio, and Žirmūnų districts are supplied with equipment and conditions that comply with the current norms.
Every year, about 500 firefighters are trained at the country’s Firefighters Training School in Vilnius, which is the only educational institution of this kind in Lithuania. With the aim to boost the service’s training capacity, in 2006 the SFRS opened a new training fire station that included a training field. Also, this project was cofinanced by the EU.
It is noteworthy that the Lithuanian capital represents a significant area of activity for the country’s fire service. In the first six months of 2017, a total of 2,019 fire-related interventions and 694 other rescue works were performed by local firefighters in Vilnius County. This represented as much as 31 percent and 12 percent of the total interventions performed from January to June 2017, respectively, according to the latest available data released by the Fire and Rescue Department.
Estonia Eyes Largest Modernization in Service’s History
In Estonia, the northernmost country among the three Baltic states, which also has the smallest population at slightly more than 1.3 million, the Estonian Rescue Board (ERB) is the government institution responsible for coordinating the country’s fire and rescue services. Even though Estonia has less than half of the population of neighboring Lithuania, in the first six months of 2017 the ERB reported a similar number of interventions, with 2,994 fire incidents.
The ERB says its ambition is to reach the efficiency of the service’s counterparts in northern Europe. “The vision of the Rescue Board is to reach an equal position by the year 2025 to the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) in terms of the level of rescue-related safety,” the ERB said in a statement.
The national institution coordinates the activities of the four Regional Rescue Centers across the country, tasked with rescue works, national fire safety supervision, emergency prevention work, and crisis management. In total, there are 72 professional brigades and more than 100 volunteer rescue brigades in Estonia.
Similarly, as in the case of neighboring Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia has been modernizing its fire services with the support of funds from the EU. This year, the ERB is scheduled to obtain new vehicles and gear worth a total of €27.8 million (US $33.2 million). The Estonian government will provide about 15 percent of the amount, with the remainder covered by funding from the EU.
Speaking at an official ceremony during which some of the new equipment was presented to the public, Kuno Tammearu, an official from the ERB, said that when he joined the Estonian Fire Services 25 years ago, the main vehicles used by local firefighters were Soviet-built ZIL 130 and 131 trucks. These vehicles, designed in the 1960s, lacked some life-saving equipment that is considered as basic by today’s standards, according to Tammearu.
The new trucks, developed by Swedish automaker Scania, that are to be operated by Estonia’s firefighters will be fitted with modern equipment. They will feature automatic Alisson gearboxes to ensure additional speed and safety, water tanks of 3,000 liters, as well as a higher frost resistance than the outdated Soviet-designed vehicles, Tammearu said.
Andres Anvelt, Estonia’s Minister of the Interior, said that, with the use of funding from the European Cohesion Fund, the ERB is able to carry out the largest technical upgrade in its history.
Under the plan, the older Soviet-built vehicles will be deployed to volunteer rescue brigades across Estonia.
Latvia Acquires New Vehicles
Also in Latvia, the country’s SFRS opted for Scania vehicles to replace its outdated trucks. Last July, Latvian firefighters announced they acquired eight rescue vehicles and three four-wheel-drive chemical rescue vehicles that will be deployed to the brigades in the country’s capital Riga, as well as in Ventspils, Gulbene, Jekabpils, Jelgava, and Rezekene. To date, 29 vehicles have been delivered to the SFRS since the beginning of 2017, the service told local journalists.
Under the service’s reorganization that was carried out in 2009, five regional units were set up to oversee the SFRS’ 33 regional brigades and fire stations.
The ongoing technical upgrade was launched about 10 years ago. In 2008 and 2009, the Latvian service acquired 71 specialized vehicles, and in 2013 the country’s government Cabinet of Ministers adopted a bill to finance the purchase of 93 such vehicles by 2018, according to the SFRS. The following years also brought a number of investments in the country’s fire stations, with the first modern facility of this kind opened in Cesis, in northern Latvia, in December 2014. This marked the first opening of a new fire station since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union. Shortly after this, another fire station was opened in Valka, also in the country’s northern part.
Jaroslaw Adamowski is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.