100 inhabitants and a thriving fire brigade
Emergency services on a tiny island… Hooge is one of 10 small islands – or halligen, as the locals call them – west of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany’s North Frisia District. It has just over 100 permanent residents and receives about 90,000 tourists, mostly day-trippers, from the mainland every year. It has one pastor and two nurses (but no doctor), and its public amenities include one hotel, three restaurants, a school with a roll of eight and a kindergarten with a roll of five.07 Apr. 2020
A distinctive feature of the landscape is that the island’s buildings are clustered atop a series of 10 low hillocks. Known locally as warften, they are man-made hills, built to protect the buildings from storm surges.
Small the hallig may be, but it has its own fire brigade. Established in 1956, it is headquartered in a firehouse perched atop the largest of the island’s warften.
The fire chief is Jan Dell Missier, and he’s been leading the brigade for just on a year. His family ties to the hallig go back several generations, and his father was one of the fire brigade’s founding members. He joined the fire brigade at the young age of 18, ever-keen to follow his family’s proud tradition. The Hallig Hooge Volunteer Fire Brigade currently has 13 active members, including one woman. That’s about 13 percent of the island’s population, which sounds impressively high.
But, like his colleagues on the mainland, Dell Missier has concerns for the brigade’s ability to attract new volunteers. "We only have four crew members left who are certified to wear breathing apparatus," he says. "That’s typical of what we’re facing here." Not that he isn’t fiercely proud of his team: "We’re doing just fine here, because we’re a close-knit community and we all pull together when the going gets tough."
The Hallig Hooge Volunteer Fire Brigade averages about 80 call-outs a year, mostly technical rescues and assistance operations. Sometimes horse-drawn vehicles gets stuck in ditches and need to be pulled out, or storm damage needs to be cleared. "Increasingly we are also called upon to secure the landing site for the rescue helicopter," Dell Missier says. "When the rescue is time-critical, then, apart from the coast guard, the helicopter is the only viable means of evacuating patients for medical treatment on the mainland." Hallig Hooge doesn’t have a police station, so when it comes to emergencies the fire brigade is on its own. That’s especially the case when there’s a fire, because the brigade can’t rely on rapid backup from neighboring fire districts.
The risk of fire is ever-present on the island because of the large number of houses with thatched roofs. One event Dell Missier remembers well is the fire that broke out at the island’s "Königspesel" museum in 1995. Local residents, students from the Wadden Sea Conservation Station based on the island and firefighters from the neighboring island of Langeneß all pitched in to prevent the flames from spreading to the neighboring buildings. The crew from Langeneß travelled to the scene by ship.
"Hallig Hooge got its first fire truck in 1985," explains Dell Missier. "It was a used Ford Transit with a TS 8 portable fire pump. That was replaced by a Mercedes LF 8 equipped with a TS 8 portable pump and a front-mounted pump, and since 1998 we’ve been using an IVECO LF 8/6, call sign Florian Nordfriesland 96/44/01". The brigade’s apparatus also includes a boat. In the old days before the first fire truck arrived, locals had to tow a fire pump trailer to fire call-outs using their own vehicles. In those days, the community paid a "tractor fee" to whoever was the first person to report to the fire house with their vehicle to collect the apparatus. This money would then be donated to the fire brigade social club and used to fund end-of-year festivities and outings.
The current fire truck is stationed in the island’s new firehouse, which was formally opened on 18 June, 2005. The volunteers receive their dispatch instructions via pager from the regional emergency control center in Harrislee, near Flensburg on the mainland. "But the emergency phone number for people to call here is 112, just like it is everywhere else in Germany," emphasizes Dell Missier. He values the brigade’s close and collegial working relationship with the island’s two nurses. It helps that his crew have undertaken special training in medical emergencies and first aid. The training includes telemedicine – the skills needed to communicate real-time patient data directly to remote hospitals and clinics. The members of the fire brigade meet for training every 14 days.
Hooge’s nearest neighbor is Langeneß, the largest of North Frisia’s ten halligen, with an area of 9.56 square kilometers. Like Hooge, it has its own fire brigade. According to fire chief Honke Johannsen, the Langeneß brigade, like Hooge’s, has 13 active members. They are supported by a further three on the neighboring hallig of Oland, which is connected to Langeneß by rail causeway. Langeneß has a population of 115, Oland 21. Even Germany’s smallest municipality, Hallig Gröde, has its own volunteer fire brigade.
It doesn’t have a dedicated firehouse because its population numbers only 10, but it serves its community well. "We have everything we need for emergencies," explains Sabine Kolk, a resident. "That includes a mobile pump unit, all the necessary hoses, and fire extinguishers on site in all the holiday homes." First responders on Gröde don’t need a vehicle because only one of the two warften on the islands is inhabited, so the houses are grouped close together. "In an emergency, everyone is literally there for each other," remarks Kolk.
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