Spanish firefighting in focus

Published:  05 July, 2012

The Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME – Military Emergency Unit) was created to support civilian emergency services in extreme cases and it has proved itself time and time again against a backdrop of a civilian service paralised by unique working conditions – but could it be under threat? George Potter reports from Spain.

Many consider this unit to be an example of how the Spanish fire service should be organised in the future. Even though, the UME has booked considerable successes in several major disasters, its existence has now come under treat due to political pressure.

The Spanish emergency structure is not far and away from that of other countries, although the particular geographical/political division of the country into 17 autonomous communities or regions has created some complications in regards to competencies and command.

These autonomous regions are quite similar to the states in the USA or the lands in Germany.

Basically, each autonomous regional government is responsible for establishing and maintaining fire and emergency response services within their specific geographical areas. Many of the major municipalities within these territories have retained their particular authority over their own fire services. Now, of the 17 autonomous regions, six are single provinces (term used to identify the 50 geopolitical areas) with an area of a couple of thousand square miles, Cantabria or La Rioja, while some of the multi-provincial regions cover many thousands of square miles with several provinces, Andalusia with eight or Castile and Leon with nine.

Now, some of these regional emergency response services are composed of hundreds of career public service firefighters and officers, staffing fire stations that give reasonably acceptable coverage of the entire community, with suitable mobile apparatus for the multiple hazards of the regions, good communications networks and even airborne intervention capabilities. Other regions however, are notoriously under staffed and under equipped, and due in part to political divergences, are expected to perform miracles on shoestring budgets.

Some provinces have only one or two full-time staffed fire stations and maybe a few volunteer groups scattered around, supposedly capable of covering some 2,000 square miles and “protecting” upwards of 100,000 citizens. One critical situation found in a number of these rural brigades is staffing. Too often, maybe two, occasionally three, or sometimes only one firefighter/driver-operator/incident commander/communications operator/EMS and whatever other duties assigned may be on duty at any given time. Training and preparation in these small brigades also leaves something to be desired.

Some six years ago, the Spanish government ordered the creation of what is called the Unidad Militar de Emergencias, UME (Military Emergency Unit) with the principal objective of supporting the civilian emergency services in extreme cases. The 3,560 strong unit, approximately equivalent to a brigade is commanded by a Spanish Army lieutenant general, and is composed of various smaller units of battalions and regiments with specific missions such as air transport and fire fighting operations.

The UME headquarters is located at an Air Force base near Madrid along with the air transport unit, an emergency intervention battalion and an emergency support regiment, while four more intervention battalions are based strategically around the country. While most of the rank and file troops, NCO’s and officers come from the Army, several hundred UME personnel are from the Air Force and Navy, but under the Army command structure.

The UME can be mobilized under any of the following circumstances considered to be major emergency situations:

-Situations of natural origin such as floods, earthquakes, landslides, heavy snowfalls and other meteorological phenomena that could cause grave consequences.

-Wildland fires

-Technological emergencies such as HAZMAT incidents, or nuclear, biological or radiological incidents.

-Terrorism actions or illicit or violent actions, including those perpetrated against critical installations, hazardous installations or those where nuclear, biological, radiological or chemical agents are employed.

-Environmental contamination.

-Any other situation the President of the Government considers appropriate and the UME intervention necessary.

Some people consider the existence of the UME to be, in the long run, a possible alternative to civilian emergency response entities. And the idea may not be far fetched, taking into account the several public service emergency response services have gone on strikes, disfigured their mobile apparatus and faced off against their commanders.

The public service fire departments in Spain enjoy unique duty tour scheduling. The majority of these services do a 24 hour duty shift followed by four (4) days, 96 straight hours off. The fire service of the capital city, Madrid, has it even more “unbearable” – one 24-hour shift followed by five (5) days, 120 hours off. It is nearly impossible to impart long duration training programmes, as the labour unions consider those long off duty hours as sacred.

The UME troops on the other hand do 24 X 24 shifts if necessary, do not question reasonable orders, do not ever contemplate strikes and earn less than the public service personnel. Still others question the competence of the UME firefighters in regards to their training and capabilities in non-wildland fires and other emergencies that public service firefighters routinely respond to. This aspect can be reasonably resolved with more and varied training and experience.

In regards to equipment and apparatus, the UME has at this time 140 all-wheel-drive pumpers with between 3,500 and 4,400 litre (900 to 1,140 gal.) tanks, several 13,500 litre (3,500 gal.) tankers, ambulances, boats, command and control vehicles, mobile communications units, and a host of other specific, purpose-built vehicles including snowploughs.

Since its creation, the UME has deployed personnel and material to more than 75 major wildland fires in numerous regions of the country, including five interventions in the Balearic Islands during 2011 and the major fires in Galicia and Andalusia. The unit maintains installations in Lorca in response to the devastating earthquake in 2011, and UME units were also dispatched to Haiti to assist in search/rescue operations after that earthquake.

During the heavy snowfalls in January and February, 1,500 troops and numerous special vehicles were on alert in preparation for possible operations if needed.

As the UME was established by the Socialist government, the newly elected conservative Popular Party that opposed the creation of the unit back in 2005 may look into constraining, reducing or even possibly eliminating the unit, just to demonstrate that politics has more power and influence than emergency response needs. 

  • Operation Florian

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