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Reader question: Do I have to help the fire brigade in Switzerland if I'm called up?

Sandra Sparrowhawk
Sandra Sparrowhawk - [email protected]
Reader question: Do I have to help the fire brigade in Switzerland if I'm called up?
Fire brigade uniforms. Photo by Matt C on Unsplash

In most Swiss cantons, residents are required to serve in the fire department if they are called up to help – or pay an exemption tax. Here's what you need to know.

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In 21 out of 26 Swiss cantons, including Aargau, Lucerne, and Valais, men and women are required to help out as firefighters in their place of residence whenever duty calls.

Although it is rare to be called up, currently, around 85,000 active residents provide both fire protection and general assistance in across 1,300 fire brigade organisations in Switzerland. These include 16 professional and 189 company or factory fire brigades.

In Switzerland, organising a fire brigade is primarily the task of the municipality, however, many local fire brigades have been regionally merged in recent years to save cost. Currently, around 60 percent of Swiss fire brigades are financed by the state and cantonal building insurance companies, such as the Gebäudeversicherung Kanton Zürich, with the rest covered by the municipalities themselves as well as by fines, for instance in the case of a false alarm.

Large Swiss cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have so-called professional fire brigades which generally have more skilled firemen and women as well as better equipment ideal for more severe fires, such as chemical spills. Additionally, some companies have their own fire brigades. These include Swiss Federal Railways, University Hospital Basel, Johnson Controls, Hoffmann-La Roche, Brenntag Schweizerhall, Chemie Uetikon, Glashütte Bülach, Migros-Verteilbetrieb Neuendorf, DiverseyLever, Dreispitz Basel and Münchenstein, among others.

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How do I know if helping the fire brigade is compulsory in my municipality?

If you have recently moved to a new village, town, city, and/or canton, chances are you will (eventually) be informed via post if helping your local fire brigade is compulsory – though this is not always the case. In fact, some places may only inform you when your help is needed, so if you’d rather be prepared for your new calling ahead of time, it’s always smart to give your local municipality a ring. Of course, training is given if you are called up (and as we mentioned, it isn't very common to be asked to join). 

If you have general questions regarding fire brigades in Switzerland, however, you can contact the FKS CSSP CSP, also known as the Swiss Fire Brigade Coordination, which represents all 26 cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein and is your point of contact for all national fire brigade issues.

Note that the order applies to all residents - not just Swiss nationals. 

A row of fire trucks.

A row of fire trucks. Photo: Rico_Loeb on Pixaby

Do I have to help if I’m called up?

If the mandatory fire brigade service applies in your place of residence, then yes you will be obliged to help out when prompted by your local fire department. However, should you wish to not do so or are unable to, for example for health reasons, then you will be asked to pay an exemption tax.

Is anyone relieved from paying exemption tax?

Aside from already being an active member of the fire brigade, you will – in most cantons - also be exempt from serving in the fire brigade if you are under the age of 19 on January 1st of the relevant tax year or have exceeded the maximum age limit required for duty on December 31st of the previous year – in most cantons this will be 44 years of age.

Likewise, if you have serious physical or mental disabilities or have suffered an illness or accident as a direct result of working in the fire brigade that has rendered you unable to provide the expected service in the (near) future, you will also be exempt from paying up.

There are also exemptions for married couples. If your spouse is an active member of the fire brigade but you yourself don’t fancy taking a jab at the job, you won’t have to pay the tax either.

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If only one spouse is subject to the replacement tax, the mandatory replacement is levied on half of the taxable income of the married couple.

If the married couple living in a legally unseparated marriage each have their own place of residence, each spouse at the place of residence owes the exemption tax, calculated on half the family income.

Expectant mothers and single parents with children up to the age of 15 are exempt from fire brigade service but are not exempt from paying exemption tax.

How much is the exemption tax?

The tax can be anywhere between 30 to 300 francs per year depending on your net income, although it can vary from place to place. 

Where is fire brigade service not mandatory?

Though the majority of Swiss cantons will expect residents to fulfil their fire service duty when prompted, more and more volunteer fire brigades have been popping up across Switzerland, specifically in the cantons of Zurich, Zug and Glarus - though these do not (yet) replace the cantons' compulsory fire brigades, also known as militia fire brigades, but rather exist alongside them.

A view of the Swiss city of Zurich.

A view of the Swiss city of Zurich. Photo by Patrick Federi on Unsplash

In Zurich, the cantonal fire brigade oversees the fire service and is also responsible for training its staff. Additionally, the Fire Police and Fire Service Act of 1978 made the fire service voluntary throughout the canton, meaning that forced recruitment can only take place under very special conditions. According to the law, an exemption tax is not required to be paid.

In June 2012, the Basler Zeitung reported that Basel-City had also voted to abolish the canton's obligatory fire service duty, though Basel-Country - where the service is still mandatory today - did not follow suit.

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More recently, Bern’s City Council unanimously voted against the introduction of a compulsory fire service duty for its residents last month. The City Council was supposed to carry out a second reading but decided not to do so and instead voted 69 to 0 against the bill on the second attempt.

The Municipal Council had sought to make around 43,000 Bern residents either join their local fire brigade when required or pay an exemption tax in a move it hoped would bring in over six million Swiss francs per year.

However, this isn’t the first time the city has rejected the motion. The fire brigade replacement tax has been a topic for the city of Bern since the 1970s and was most recently – prior to last month’s resurgence – dismissed in 1999.

In the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Ticino the service is also not mandatory.

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