Emergency call-out on congested streets

In Europe, more than 20 000 people are killed in fires each year. Driving a fire truck in the city of Amsterdam is no easy job. The city’s narrow roads, the hundreds of thousands of cyclists and the constant rush-hour traffic impose tough demands on drivers and vehicles alike.

Brandweer. The Dutch word for “Fire Service” shines in white on a brand-new red Volvo FE at the fire service’s support unit outside Amsterdam. Our driver for the day, Theo Graeff, has 22 years as a volunteer fire-fighter and 15 years as a taxi driver on his merit list. In other words, he’s driven just about everything there is to drive but is still highly impressed by the new truck.
“It’s easy to manoeuvre and it responds crisply. It has a tight turning circle and slips smoothly around tight corners. It’s easy to drive fast and offers excellent visibility thanks to its many rear-view mirrors,” he elaborates.

At the touch of a button. the truck’s hook-lift sets to work with a whirring sound and grabs its load. The truck bucks slightly, and in ninety seconds hauls a 12-tonne container onto its cargo platform as though it were a mere Lego brick. 
“This container is a supply module and contains a small kitchen, refrigerator and benches that we can place on site so the firemen can have a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Since many fires last a long time, it is very important that the people fighting the flames are properly supplied with food and drink – they cannot work long hours without adequate nourishment,” says Theo and sets off towards Damrak, one of the city’s busiest streets. 

THE FIRST STOP ON THEO GRAEFF’S TEST drive is Museumplein, one of the city’s beautiful squares, and behind an ornamental lake it is possible to catch a glimpse of Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national art museum.
“Amsterdam is a very old city so there are many beautiful buildings. However, this also means that renovations and repairs go on all the time, which is pure hell for traffic. As if things weren’t tough enough as they are,” says Theo and sighs as a cyclist darts across a few centimetres in front of his truck.
The traffic in central Amsterdam is a driving challenge that has to be experienced to be believed. Rush-hour is 24 hours a day. The streets host a never-ending stream of cars, cycles, mopeds, trucks, trams and even the occasional horse.
The fact is that the traffic in central Amsterdam is among the worst in Europe. The city centre is ringed by the A10 dual carriageway but to get to the centre, it is necessary to navigate smaller streets that are both narrow and burdened with heavy traffic.

Theo Graeff’s truck is not among the first on site to fight a fire after the alarm sounds. First, the fire-fighting and ladder trucks arrive on the scene to bring the fire under control using water or foam. After that the support unit arrives. Depending on the type of assignment, the truck is loaded with different containers to suit different needs.
They assist the fire-fighters by providing any extra equipment they may need. Everything from extra-long hoses or extra tanks of foam to medical equipment which are needed if it takes a long time to put out a fire.

THE ROUTE TAKES US along narrow streets. Modern architecture blends with stone and brick buildings from the 17th century onwards. Via a street called Honthorststraat, Theo crosses one of the city’s many canals and sets course for Marie Heinekenplein. Many of the bridges cannot handle heavy trucks so it’s vital to know which route to take.
“With hundreds of narrow streets it’s important to know where you’re going. Since I’ve worked as a taxi driver for so long, I’m familiar enough with the streets not to need the on-board GPS,” he adds.
Just like other volunteer fire-fighters, Theo Graeff has his regular job to think about. On the days when he is on call, however, he has to be ready round the clock.
“The truck has to work perfectly, of course. That’s the most important thing. Next in priority is that we have to be able to get there. We always have two trucks on standby and must be able to reach an accident site within an hour of receiving the alarm,” he says. 

In central Amsterdam, the fire service have about 15 emergency call-outs a year, usually for minor fires or to rescue people stuck in elevators. By far the most common scenario, however, is cycle and car accidents. Help from the support unit is requested in the event of major fires, large-scale accidents or catastrophe situations.

“IF THE FIRE SERVICE’S BIGGEST ENEMY is fire, then the support unit’s biggest problem is the traffic and the narrow streets. But I like it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing this for so long. The professional fire-fighters are great people and they appreciate what we do. And although we only provide logistics, I’d like to believe that we play an important role in keeping the fire service working efficiently,” says Theo Graeff as he sweeps by the railway station on his way back to the support unit.

Watch Theo Graeff drive a fire-fighting truck in Amsterdam.

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