Militarized police forces are nothing unusual. Militarized fireman are rather different. And yet, the French sapeurs-pompiers are just that. Oh, sure, they not armed, or at least, I have never seem them so, but (for example) they hold parades next to the War Memorial and lay memorial wreaths. The parade that prompted this was on VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, May 8. 

VE Day 2016 The black box is a portable music centre for playing the Marseillaise, but sometimes the town band comes along as well. The two men in front of the war memorial have just laid a wreath. The mayor (in his mayoral sash) is nearest the camera.

The sapeurs-pompiers were one of Napoleon's better ideas, unlike (say) the Egyptian campaign and the invasion of Russia, and to this day they are very widely admired. The vast majority are volunteers: 80%, along with 15% full-time professionals and 5% 'real' military.  About 12% are women. 

The biggest surprise is that the sapeurs-pompiers also provide much of the ambulance service, especially in rural France. If you call 118 (the French emergency number, like the English 999 or the American 911) a sapeurs-pompiers ambulance may well respond to the call.

In fact, you can also call 18 (the sapeurs-pompiers) and their control room will arrange things, including if needed a SAMU ambulance (hospital-based instead of sapeur-pompier based) or other medical personnel. I am not entirely sure how and why this came about, but my suspicion is that it is historical accident, and it appears to have arisen piecemeal. In Lyon the first horse-drawn ambulance was introduced in 1901 for picking up casualties of road accidents, and they claim to have been the first. The French health service, while excellent, also has haphazard origins and is extraordinarily complicated with all kinds of separate entities, cross billing and state refunds. Somehow, a quasi-militarized ambulance-cum-fire service seems to fit in very well with this. 

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016