The draft Working Time Directive would prevent people from working more than 48 hours a week – to protect them from being exploited.
But it could leave Germany's enormous volunteer fire brigade network bereft of people, said Rudolf Römer, deputy manager of the country's fire brigade association.
“Most people work a 39 or 40-hour week at their jobs, and this would only leave them with eight hours a week to devote to training or to calls out, and this is used up very quickly,” he told The Local.
“In one week a volunteer could work one hour, but the next, could work for ten.”
He said the pride of the German system was that the network of 23,000 volunteer fire brigades covering the majority of the country managed to meet the target of responding to all calls within around 10 minutes.
There are 1.1 million volunteers who staff these brigades, fulfilling the German rule that every village or community has to have a fire brigade, no matter how small. This has made the volunteer fire brigades important social glue in many rural areas.
Only those cities with a population of more than 100,000 have professional fire brigades, he said – a total of 105, with just 27,000 professional fire fighters.
This two-tier structure has served Germany well for more than 150 years, while Austria and some parts of France have similar systems.
“We would not be able to continue to respond within ten minutes if our volunteers were limited to eight hours a week,” he said.
“It is not that we are against protecting workers. We have to ensure that our people have breaks and so on, but we can organise that ourselves. The European Commission rule would mean we would have to send people home – or they would have to take time off from their jobs the day following a fire response.”
He said the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Laszlo Andor, had invited social organisations across the union to make submissions which would be considered in the drafting of the Working Time Directive.
In a letter to Des Prichard from Britain's East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, one of the several European fire fighters' representatives tackling the issue, Andor said the aim of the directive was to protect the health and safety of workers.
This particularly applied for those activities such as fire fighting which can include “Periods of physically demanding, potentially dangerous and/or stressful work.”
But he said he would also remember the needs of fire services to be available 24 hours a day – and that they had an activity profile which included periods of quiet as well as periods of intense activity.
Prichard told The Local that volunteering was considered as work in the directive, while further problems were expected because on-call time was also included. “Just because you are not being paid does not legally mean volunteers are not legally regarded as being at work,” he said.
The European Court of Justice has already ruled that the Working Time Directive would not apply to emergency services during emergencies, Andor said, but he stressed that this did not represent a general exception.
It seems from the letter that Andor would like to introduce a flexible clause for fire fighters. Negotiations are now being held with social partners such as trades unions, at a European level, with an agreement due in September.