Anže Godec Photographer

There are over 160000 volunteer firefighters (VFF) in Slovenia, a country of 2 million people. With over 1300 firefighters departments (FD), they represent the country’s biggest civil and humanitarian organisation. This Photo essay was produced between 2017-2021 and was published in National Geographic Slovenia in july 2021.

Story got a Best Edit Award from the chief National Geographic editor in Washington.

Summer camp for children beside Bohinj lake, a landmark in Slovenia, where children not only get to play, but also achieve a sense of organisation and discipline with a morning flag rise and an evening campfire.

Financially VFF gets funded by the state, depending on the number of members, but a better part of the income represents donations from local businesses. In early december, Ivo and Mirko of Vinje FD walk around from house to house to sell calendars. In villages this is a tradition, and most people welcome firefighters in their homes to sit down and have a drink or two; which is why selling calendars can take up to half of december.

A blooming cherry tree illuminated by 1st may fire. 1st may fires are a centuries old tradition from pagan times. Nowadays, on an evening before 1st may, fires are burned before the Labour day. In the village of Čušperk these celebrations are organised by VFFs. These mass parties, also called “veselica”, are like big garden parties with barbecue and other activities, representing a large income opportunity for FDs.

A global cleaning day initiative started several years ago, was well received in Slovenia. Here we can see volunteer firefighters cleaning Ljubljanica river, alongside the organisation Ecologists Without Borders. Beside the regular trash, they also found a Second World War rifle.

Every few years firefighters gather in their local FDs and vote for a new leadership. Firefighters voting for a new president in the village of Vinje.

VFFs have a long tradition in Slovenia, and it is an organisation that continue to change and grow. FD of Renče-Vogrsko in the west of Slovenia near Italian border among vineyards – it is one of the youngest fire departments established in 2018. FD Metlika is Slovenia’s first and oldest VFF established back in 1869.

Once in every 5 years there is a big gathering and a new national headquarters is elected. One of those was in 2018 in the oldest city in Slovenia – Ptuj. A few days gathering ended with a big parade through the city.

Training, training and more training. VFFs usually help alongside the professionals, or do smaller interventions, but a few places in Slovenia are not covered by professional units or are too far. Those FDs have a special status that involves much more training – with car accidents for example – a magnitude of emergency which would normally be managed only by professionals. One of these is Stična FD. Here we can see a car accident simulation training.

Veselica is a word that can not be directly translated from slovenian to english. It means a big garden party; sometimes with thousands of people gathering in the summer with barbecue and live music. These parties are organised by Fire Departments and they represent a big financial income for them. The income is usually spent on new fire trucks, equipment, helmets, etc.

Among many activities there are also competitions. Here we can see a national competition where only the best teams in the country compete for a national champion. The competition and activities are designed to give youngsters experience working with equipment that could help them later in life when working on actual interventions.

Photos from different interventions. To be able to go and be called to an intervention you have to be an active member, and you also must pass different theoretical and physical tests. Safety always comes first.