Behind the scenes of GS: a professional fire and rescue service like no other

Meet the professionals at the top of their game working hard for the well-being of the CERN community. Meet the CERN Fire Brigade.


Highly-qualified professional firefighters
CERN’s Fire and Rescue Service (FRS, GS-FB Group) currently consists of 58 professionals. These are highly sought-after positions: for just a handful of vacancies, hundreds of applications are submitted from all over Europe. And bear in mind that only professional firefighters with at least five years’ experience at a centre with high levels of operational activity may apply… and they must also have a good command of at least one of the Organization's two official languages.

Once the pre-selection process is over, around twenty candidates progress to the next stage, where they are really put through their paces with language tests, theory exams and exercises on real fires. “For the practical part, all candidates are evaluated on their responses to a real fire," explains Yann Lechevin, project leader in the FRS. “So for 20 candidates, we need 20 fires... I'll let you imagine the logistical challenges this poses for just a few vacancies!”

Once the selection process is over, the lucky few then join the ranks of the CERN Fire Brigade, embarking on seven weeks of technical training, generally followed by a month of intensive linguistic immersion, all intended to prepare them for the unusual environment of CERN. “CERN is a very distinctive environment, particularly in terms of its layout,” says Catherine Laverrière, quality manager in the FRS. “We are asked to intervene in a huge variety of locations: tunnels, experiment areas… even the restaurants and hostels. In addition, we have to deal with a variety of specific technological hazards. In this context, the training required for a professional firefighter to become autonomous takes at least two years.”

In 2010, the Fire Brigade welcomed its first female firefighter, quickly followed by two more. “We hope that more women will join our ranks soon,” adds Lechevin. “Of course they are subject to the same selection criteria as their male colleagues, which tells you a lot about their abilities.” In April, five new (male) recruits will join the Fire Brigade to replace firefighters who have reached the ends of their contracts. Six more will be selected in May to join in autumn 2014.

The firefighters of CERN’s Fire and Rescue Service.

A measured response
Last year, the CERN firefighters were involved in more than 1800 interventions. Recently they were called to the CERN Computer Centre, where they quickly managed to get a fire under control. “We were on the scene within three minutes,” recalls Patrick Berlinghi, who was on duty when the fire broke out. “If we had arrived two minutes later, everything would have been far more complicated. The thing about the Computer Centre is that we can never switch the power off… which would seem strange to most external firefighters given the usual safety rules!" And therein lies the unique nature of CERN: nothing is ever run-of-the-mill. A few weeks ago, the Fire Brigade was alerted to a fire that had started inside a detector. Most firefighters would have drenched the affected area without hesitation... which wouldn't have impressed the Organization's scientific community much. But the CERN Firefighters opted to extinguish the fire by smothering it. “That’s also what makes our job so interesting,” concludes Yann Lechevin. “We work closely with our colleagues in other departments, including those responsible for the experiments and members of the Operations Group (BE-OP), to find the best solutions together. There’s no such thing as an ordinary intervention at CERN!”


TETRA triumphs at CERN

Originating in a project launched and developed by the CERN Fire and Rescue Service (see the article in Bulletin 51-03/2013) with extensive support from the IT and PH Departments, the TETRA digital radio communication system is now an integral part of the equipment used by CERN’s firefighters. These radios are also used by the Organization's safety officers and members of the LHC experiments and have proved their worth many times, particularly thanks to the D.A.T.I. application (dispositif d’alarme pour travailleur isolé – alarm device for isolated workers), which sends a signal to the Fire Brigade control room whenever someone is in a horizontal position for a long time or whenever the device detects a significant impact, and which in 2013 allowed them to help someone who had lost consciousness.

On the back of this success, CERN’s TETRA system recently convinced a panel of experts of its relevance and reliability: on 21 February, Tetra Today magazine and the TETRA Critical Communications Association awarded CERN prizes in two categories, against first-class competition from all over the world: “Best use of TETRA for public safety” and "Outstanding single-site TETRA installation”.


by Anaïs Schaeffer