In 2021, confined and with no work commute, Régis logged 5000 ‘on call’ hours. He was called out for 400 of those. He helped extinguish 15 fires, assisted 35 roadside accidents and supported 202 personal assistance interventions. He also took 3500 photos. Régis is a fireman. And a photographer. He’s spent his career in banking. He’s lived these lives in parallel for 30 years.
In 1991, Régis wandered into the fire station of Villerupt, his hometown on the border with Luxembourg, in north eastern France to enquire how to become a fireman. He had seen a documentary on television and liked the idea of being of service to his community. Some training and four weeks later, he went out on his first intervention. Régis was 16.
“It was a different era back then. We were called out on 400 or so interventions a year. As a junior I tagged along anytime I could day or night and then just got up and went to school the next day.” Today, they go out on over 1000 call outs and trainees under 18 are much more regulated but at the time, as much as he was eager to learn, the team were happy to teach him.
It is an unwritten rule in France, that in any emergency, fire or otherwise, you call the fire brigade. “In reality, fire interventions make up just 10% of our calls. We spend over 80% of our time on ‘personal assistance’.” It can include assistance with anything from chest pain to loss of consciousness to suicide or heart attack. “People know that the fire brigade will be with you in 15 minutes. And there’s no charge.”
This means that Régis is trained not just to extinguish fires but also in medical first aid, rescue and roadside assistance using hydraulic-extrication tools. In fact, volunteers have the same training as full-time professional firemen. And that leads to a high turnover. “In today’s world, it’s a big time-commitment and the lifestyle takes its toll. Five years is considered a long career for a fireman.”
Yet Régis has stayed and built his life around his commitment. He even chose the plot of land to build his house based on its proximity to the fire station. Most evenings and weekends, after office hours, he’s at home, on-call. “You can carry on with your life but from the moment your pager beeps, you have 7 minutes to get to the station, jump into your gear and board a truck. Typically for a standard first aid intervention you’re back at the station within 90 minutes. For a fire it can be a lot longer.”
Régis’ wife is a nurse and also works irregular hours. They met 15 years ago on board a dive ship in the Red Sea, off the Egyptian coast. She came from Liège where she was a nurse in the hospital burns unit and had saved up all her leave and overtime hours to complete her PADI Dive Master certification. He was diving with friends on a rare holiday and experimenting with underwater photography. They clicked and 6 months later she moved to Villerupt and took up a nursing job in the emergency room of the hospital in Esch sur Alzette, Luxembourg’s second biggest town. Their son was born in 2011.
Over the years, Régis has taken on more work at the fire station, becoming a trainer for new recruits and being promoted to Adjutant at the end of 2020, he now leads a team of 9 people in 2 trucks. He’s also brought his photography skills out of the water and is a photographer reporter for interventions throughout the district. “I started with just a little disposable camera, snapping a couple of shots at unique interventions, as much for training purposes as anything.” His interest and creative eye evolved with the arrival of digital cameras. Today, his photos appear on the station’s website and the annual calendar.
Régis describes his family dynamic as ‘untraditional’ “But it works for us. It’s not uncommon for us to cross each other in the hallway, one going to work and the other coming home to sleep. It makes the time we do spend together all the more precious. We rediscover each other all the time.”
The pandemic changed all that. For a family who was rarely at home at the same time, they shifted to dad and son at home, all the time. “It was hard. My wife was working long emergency shifts and trying to manage our home life at arm’s length. Our son was home from school and had daily homework to complete. I was trying to perform my job at the bank entirely on Zoom. Tensions were quick to rise.”
With his wife’s increased workload, Régis became abruptly aware of how much his wife had been doing while he was at the fire station. “It was an initiation to domestic organisation!” A complex system of colour-coded post-its left in key locations was developed, reminding each member of their household tasks for the day such as ‘Empty the dishwasher’. ‘The coffee cups go here’. ‘No TV before homework’. “I have a renewed, profound respect for everything my wife had been juggling to manage our home in addition to her day job. I’m very thankful!”
Confinement was also an opportunity for father and son to go beyond merely co-existing. “We’d both been in our routines; my son with school and his friends, me with work and the fire station. Suddenly our routines overlapped and I got to know my son. What makes him laugh, angry, what books he likes to read and why.” There’s no turning back from that. “He likes to eat lunch at the station and check out the trucks. I don’t think he wants to become a fire fighter though, he’s more into graphic design*.”
Régis talks of the frustrations and joys of the bittersweet nature of his work. “I became a fireman to help people, not let them die. Even if I know we did everything we could, it’s hard to accept. As firemen, accepting our limitations doesn’t come easily. It helps to talk to the senior guys. Sometimes you just need to hear someone tell you what you already know: ‘this is what you’re trained for, you did everything right, you didn’t cause it’. Then the next shift, you deliver a healthy baby in the back of a car. It doesn’t make up for the losses but it does remind you why you’re here.”
Even if after 30 years on the job, he’s nearly a ‘senior guy’ himself, Régis is not tired yet. He has recently become President of the Fire Fighters of Villerupt Association.
In March, after spending his professional career in back office and client-facing roles in the banking industry, Régis has changed tack and has taken on a role in the Physical Security team where he is responsible for physical safety and fire prevention of the two Pictet office sites in Luxembourg.