Polls consistently show that firefighters are among the most trusted services in Lithuania, but they say they are struggling to perform their duties due to chronic underfunding. If things don't change, Lithuanian firefighters are planning to strike.
The brigade of Klaipėda District, one of the 51 fire services across the country, respond to around 500 emergency calls every year.
They have to cover a wide and largely rural area and, due to understaffing, some towns have only one firefighter on call.
Fire services are alarmingly short on funds not just to hire more fighters, but even to pay the existing ones. In Klaipėda District, firefighters are not paid overtime and are compensated with days off.
“In December, we will have a shortage of 20,000 euros to pay firefighters' wages,” says Klaipėda District Fire Service chief Stanislovas Virbauskas. “Even though the salaries are just a tiny bit above the minimum wage.”
With night shifts, firefighters make less than 500 euros a month after taxes, Virbauskas tells LRT TV.
Even though fire services are under municipal jurisdiction, the pay fund is provided by the Ministry of the Interior.
Firefighter unions have signed a ‘national agreement’ with the government this year to raise the pay. The plan requires four million euros annually and firefighters are ready to take action if the promise is not delivered.
“Our colleagues are determined to hold protests,” says Loreta Soščekienė, the president of the Federation of Law Enforcement Officers, adding that the planned date for the action is late October or early November.
“We will start with protest rallies and if that doesn't work, we'll go further,” which means on strike.
The recently appointed minister of the interior, Rita Tamašunienė, acknowledges that underfunding of the fire services has been a problem for years.
“We are currently working hard [to find the money] in the next year's budget,” she says. “We are appealing to the Ministry of Finance and the government, bringing forward the needs of our firefighters.”
Meanwhile the Fire and Rescue Department is also considering how to optimise the network and perhaps merge some of the services.