The word ‘pompier’ comes from the verb ‘pomper’ (to pump), referring to the manual fire pumps that were originally used at fires. ‘Sapeur’ probably comes from ‘saper’ meaning to undermine or destroy, as early firefighters often had little choice but to knock down whole buildings to stop a fire advancing.

The French fire brigade, les sapeurs pompiers, are not just called out for fires. Trained and equipped to deal with medical emergencies, they are very often the first responders to be called for both road and domestic emergency medical situations.

With approximately 250 thousand fire fighters throughout France, only 30 to 40 thousand are ‘professionals’ (SPP) on a regular salary – the rest are volunteers, (SPV) paid peanuts to risk their lives when fires break out! This is worth remembering next time you reach into your pocket to make a donation to a fire fighter event, or for the yearly Christmas calendar.

In smaller communes, the emergency sirens of the ‘réseau national d’alerte’ ( RNA) blast out in short sequences to alert volunteer firemen to man their posts for fire or accident. However, most towns now use the more modern and somewhat quieter system of the beeper on the belt!

Fire in Le Perthus

Don’t panic though if you still hear the regular air raid sounding racket, as this national network of 4,500 sirens is tested out for one minute on the first Wednesday of each month at midday. DO panic if you hear the siren sound in three sequences of 1 minute each, separated by a silence of five seconds. This warns of imminent and major catastrophe


Some useful vocabulary
Help – Au secours! It’s an emergency – C’est un cas d’urgence
The house/car is on fire – La maison/voiture a pris feu
I need an ambulance
– J’ai besoin d’une ambulance
I‘ve had an accident – J’ai eu un accident
My husband has had a heart attack/stroke –  Mon mari fait une crise cardiaque/a souffert un  AVC (accident vasculaire cérébral – pronounced ai vai cai)
My child is choking – Mon enfant s’étouffe.
I’m bleeding – Je saigne beaucoup.
I’m diabetic, I need insulin – Je suis diabétique, j’ai besoin d’insuline.
My wife is having the baby, her water has broken – Ma femme accouche, le bébé arrive, la poche des eaux a percé.

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