Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Tails of the Venice Fire Department

The life of a Venetian firefighter, according to a friend of ours who is one, is not usually very exciting, and for those of us who live in the city, or who love the city, this is good news. One of the more recent instances of what might qualify as high excitement for Venetian emergency workers was the tornado that touched down in Sant' Elena in June, which did quite a lot of damage and seriously injured one man. (

Then, of course, there was that little conflagration at La Fenice some years back... Our friend spent all night fighting that fire and, exciting though it must have been, no one wants a repeat of anything like that.

I understand there was a BBC program, Venice 24/7, about emergency personnel in Venice, but I've yet to watch it. I was reminded of the vigili del fuoco this past Saturday when five of them came to the Sant' Elena area to lasso a sunken boat that had strayed into the heavily-traveled canal just to the south of the island. They towed the boat to a concrete ramp not far from the mouth of the Canale di San Pietro, chopped some holes in it to drain the water inside, then hauled it higher up the ramp by hand (as you can see above). The boats still sits where they left it. I keep waiting for Sandro to suggest we go claim it as our own, but having seen up close its poor condition, he seems to have no interest.

It was rather a lot of fireman for the job on Saturday, but, then, as our friend says, they generally have time on their hands. Our friend uses it to lift weights and stay in shape. He's an ideal fire-fighter, actually: fit, smart, extremely conscientious, and kind. That being said, it's my hope that none of you will ever have serious cause to meet him in his professional capacity.

Sandro & friends behind the wheel of a fire boat, June 2011
In any case, much of what the firefighters actually do turns out to be animal rescue. Stranded cats, for example. But occasionally there will be more exotic creatures to deal with: a sea turtle, for example, or a dolphin, who's followed a ship into the lagoon.

Unfortunately, such cases aren't quite as dramatic as one might imagine. For if the firefighters receive a call about them, the animals are inevitably dead. The large sea creatures who roam into the lagoon and manage to get back out again generally do so without ever attracting attention.

According to our friend's wife, the most exciting wildlife-related call i pompieri have received in recent years involved a giant rat. A family in il centro storico had enclosed it in its kitchen, sealing off the door to that room with heavy plastic sheeting, just to be safe, before calling the fire department in utter panic.

Five or six firefighters arrived to find the family cowering in a corner of their living room and the rat in retreat behind the refrigerator where, after some initial attempts by them to move the appliance, it gave every indication with its thrashing and thumping of being quite large. So large, in fact, that some of the firefighters were inspired to leap quite suddenly onto kitchen chairs.

No doubt to better survey the scene, for strategic reasons, from a slight elevation.

Actually, the way our friend's wife reports it, there were repeated firefighter surveys made from the heights of those kitchen chairs. And not a little discussion about which of them would continue to strategically survey the situation from above, who would have to move the fridge, and who would blast the beast with a freezing burst from their CO2 extinguisher.

Which is how the monster eventually met its end.

I wonder if anything like this was captured by the cameras of Venice 24/7?

A much more eagerly-anticipated call involves, according to our friend's wife, a woman who, in a state of near undress, locks herself out of her apartment. She says this is a favorite topic of Venetian firefighters, but, considering how few single women there are in Venice under the age of 82, it sounds to me more like fantasy, or urban legend, than anything likely to break up the monotony of a long night at the fire station.

I'm afraid the reality is actually much tamer. Like that boat drifting hazardously in the canal off Sant' Elena. Or a call our friend's wife said she received from him a couple of months back one afternoon while she was at work. Her husband was in the Campo Ghetto Nuovo with five of his colleagues and they were wondering if she had any ideas about the best way to get an iguana down out of a tree.


  1. Although a great programme, the rat drama wasn't included. Would that it were! Sounds very entertaining (to watch). What was a little disconcerting was that, because of the topography of the city,the firefighters seemed to have to ask locals for directions when responding to a call out. You'd think by now GPS would be able to locate properties precisely. But they all seemed very dedicated to their job.

    1. Okay, I must watch that program in the next week, Andrew, and try not to be too worried by the fact that our potential rescuers will be stopping to ask directions on their way to save us.

  2. The series has just been screened in Australia, and I enjoyed it. It made a welcome change to see Venice from the viewpoint of its residents rather than day trippers and travellers. Plus, I always enjoy the chance to hear Venetian accents.

    1. It sounds interesting, and I've even found it on Youtube, so there's no obstacle to finally seeing it.

  3. I've seen the series. A fire appeared maybe once, the rest was the guys trying to raise sunken boats or remind senior citizens a door can be opened if they want to get out of a room but forgot how to do it.

    1. I'm perfectly happy if such things as you mention above, Sasha, are the hardest things Venice's firefighters ever have to do. Actually, I just saw my friend and he said that because of the extremely high bora winds that blew through town yesterday and last night, they spent much of yesterday affixing those tall flat metal stands that hold election posters (& that you see all around the city for weeks before an election approaches) to the pavement. Otherwise they were acting very much like sails and crashing dangerously across campi.

    2. Watched the series with interest in Australia before paddling in a dragonboat in the 2013 Vogalonga. I was most impressed by the presence of all the emergency vessels along the route, and particularly assured by the very prompt actions of one crew to assist a kayaker in trouble. According to the press only four persons 'had a bath'. Helen S.

    3. It seems to me that Venice's emergency services do their jobs well, Helen. At least I can say with certainty that the one fireman I personally know, a department head, is pretty much everything you could want in am emergency responder: extremely responsible, knowledgeable, kind, fearless, and quite strong.