Sa, 2.12.2023

Switch to half-voluntary rescue probable

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Kristjan Teedema / Tartu Postimees

The Rescue Board is on course to present proposals of how to reform Estonia's professional rescue system that is sinking deeper into deficit. It is probable Estonia will switch to half-voluntary rescue in 2-7 years. While volunteers are ready, the board remains skeptical.

Even though it turned out last fall that the board needs €148 million inside the next ten years to maintain current capacity, the sustainability of the rescue model makes for a topic few dare to discuss on the eve of local elections. The reason for this is simple: the reform could hit rescue workers, local governments, and residents hard.

One place where a corresponding analysis has already been carried out is the Estonian Academy of Internal Security's Rescue College. Assistant at the college Andres Mumma believes Estonia is maintaining a far more capable rescue network than needed.

The number of fires has been dropping persistently and sharply. Instead rescue workers must deal with a lot of other cases tied to population aging: the need to provide assistance, open doors for emergency medical care teams, and animal rescue.

“No fewer than 95 percent of Estonian settlement units see fewer than a single residential building fire a year. If we are to maintain professional rescue commandos for that, the cost-benefit ratio will never add up,” Mumma said.

Statistics seems to corroborate his claims. Maintaining a professional round the clock commando with four shifts costs €300,000 a year. In 2015, Estonia had seven commandos that responded to so few calls that every single one ended up costing more than €3,000. Estonia has more rescue commandos per 100,000 residents than Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Norway.

Mumma believes it is high time to start a public debate on an acceptable compromise between money spent and security gained. A college working group has concluded, by analyzing data from 2010-2015, that maintaining a commando would be sensible in areas that have more than one residential fire per 5,000 residents a year.

What would that mean for the rescue network? “Around 50 percent of rescue teams in low-intensity areas should be made half-professional,” Mumma said.

In other words – the commando will be retained, while rescuers would respond to calls from home or work. They would be local volunteers paid only for the time spent training and responding to calls. That is how rescue works in most of western Europe and by today in several places in Estonia.

Mumma's calculations suggest having this kind of system would be five times cheaper than the current professional model, with annual cost per commando falling from €300,000 to €60,000. “What would we lose? About 5-10 minutes in response time,” Mumma said. The money left over could be channeled into what really gets results: prevention.

Volunteers ready

When the professional rescue commando was shut down in Kaberneeme in the previous decade, local businessman Rait Killandi realized it would now take the nearest firefighting team 30-45 minutes to get there. Killandi and his friends decided to pool their resources and buy a rescue truck to be able to protect their families. By today the group has become the entire village's rescue commando that is on permanent standby from the middle of April to the middle of October. The men would be happy to be on standby all year round had the group their own building.

Estonia has 114 volunteer commandos created in more or less the same way today. 2,296 volunteers have tier-one or -two rescue training, while state grants and sponsors have helped procure equipment.

Killandi is now the chairman of the Rescue League's council and has a message for society. “The state has said that rescue is short €150 million, and that the salaries of rescue workers need to be hiked to €1,000. That can only happen at the expense of closing commandos. Volunteers are prepared to step in, but only if they are guaranteed working conditions,” Killandi suggested.

Society would have to clear several mental obstacles first. Killandi claims that voluntary rescue is voluntary only in name. There cannot be a situation where no one responds to a call.

“The men have an understanding of the community's expectations; they cannot betray that trust. When they finish work at five, they do not go out for a beer, they come straight back to the village and put themselves on call.” The alarm center makes no difference between professional and voluntary rescue when the call comes. It orders the nearest team to respond.

In Germany, 99 percent of rescue works based on that kind of a model of volunteering. Professional rescuer workers are only employed in areas where high-tech is used, like airports, major cities, and highrise districts.

The Rescue League suggests Estonia's future rescue model could borrow from Iceland. Volunteer commandos are scattered all over the country. Every commando has a single professional to take care of the equipment and the building, keep the truck warm, respond to calls, and collect volunteers in case of an accident.

What would be needed for this? Killandi believes that while the network of commandos is already sufficient in Estonia, the number of volunteer firemen could grow from the current 2,000 to 5,000 in order for it to be possible to maintain enough shifts to react to major crises.

The key aspect is money. The state currently supports volunteers with €1.3 million a year from the Rescue Board's budget, while at least €5 million would be needed to develop equipment and infrastructure. Securing this financing would mean better equipment and drastically shorter response times. It would be favorable for the state as volunteer commandos are much cheaper than their professional counterparts due to lack of labor costs.

Member of the council of the Rescue League Toomas Roolaid said that countries much wealthier than Estonia have found professional rescue to be too expensive. “Switzerland's message from 5-6 years ago was that the state cannot afford to maintain professional rescue in scarcely populated areas. It is not a sensible way to cover low-density areas.”

He believes the current rescue situation in Estonia hides great potential. The state has a few years in which to launch a debate and agree on a new rescue model. Volunteers are highly motivated, and making use of that fact could make the switch to a Nordic rescue model go very smoothly indeed.

“The only potential glass ceiling I perceive is if we do not make basic investments into voluntary rescue that would cause the next generation to find the system to be lacking and something to which its representatives do not want to contribute,” Roolaid said.

No treasure galleon on the horizon

What will happen next? Rait Killandi believes that cuts in professional rescue cannot be avoided. “It is necessary to close 20-30 percent of commandos to pay rescue workers €1,000 a month. And that is what will happen – a suitable number of commandos will be closed in between elections. Next these areas will probably develop commandos of volunteers in 12-18 months,” Killandi said based on experience.

The Rescue League suggests that replacements should be considered today, not when the professional commando has already disappeared. This would allow volunteers to take over the commando and retain rescue capacity, as was done in the Võsu commando years ago. Deputy Chancellor of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in charge of rescue Hannes Kont said that the Rescue Board cannot continue with the current level of financing in a 7-15-year perspective. “Looking at growth forecasts and pressure on the state budget, I just cannot see that additional financing,” Kont said.

While clouds are gathering on the horizon, there is still time. The coalition has agreed to add €3 million to the board's budget for equipment annually starting from 2018. Kont did not rule out boosting the relative importance of volunteer rescue in Estonia as one possible solution. “We forecast this trend to persist in the long run,” he said.

Minister of Internal Affairs Andres Anvelt believes the debate could start this fall. “I have ordered the board to put together a professional analysis of ways in which we could reform the rescue system. They should look at the models used by others countries; Finland for example. After that we can launch a public discussion. The debate will start in the fall,” Anvelt believes.

Anvelt said that the main task is to change the system without losing in response time. “Provided this is impossible under other models, we will have to hold on to what we have today for a time longer,” he said.

Anvelt does not believe it would be a good idea to simply replace professional rescue with a volunteer-based alternative. “I cannot say they are interchangeable – under no circumstances. Voluntarism cannot be a regulation. It can be value added as preparedness varies greatly in different parts of Estonia.”

Director of the Rescue Board Kuno Tammearu said that the board is working toward keeping commandos open and the state finding the money. “Our primary and most important activity has been to try and get our proposals for additional resources and maintaining current capacity in the 2018-2021 budget strategy,” Tammearu said.

The board is currently not observing any of the audit's three cost-cutting scenarios since it has been given an additional €3 million annually by the government. The Rescue Board will try to meet expectations in society as far as possible. “We find that the current system of professional commandos, supported by a network of volunteers, is the optimal solution for Estonia, and that changing it would impact feelings of security of citizens.”