Fighting the flames with the Unimog: the all-rounder from Marseille


Bring on the water!

Yves is assigned to the fire brigade battalion in Marseille and carries out his duties in a Unimog.

A deep blue winter sky hangs over the city of Gardanne in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône. A red Unimog U 5023 slowly moves across the rough terrain. The crew is here for off-road driving training.

Direct contact with the fire.

The battalion uses the Centre Francis Arrighi, Domaine de Valabre in the west of Gardanne for training. This is where the École d’application de Sécurité Civile is located, a training centre operated by the French Civil Protection. One of the trainers is Yves, who today is driving the water tender on off-road terrain. “We use the winter months for off-road training. This is because during the summer, the U 5023s sometimes come into direct contact with wildfires, and this often happens far off the beaten track.”

A 33 year-long passion.

51-year-old Yves was previously involved in the voluntary fire brigade. After 33 years, the following still applies: “My job is my passion.” After qualifying as a trainer on the Unimog, he became a driving instructor in 2010, but returned to fire fighting four years later. Since 2017, he has been training recruits on the Unimog again, along with two other colleagues.

“We try to pass on our experience, so the recruits avoid making serious mistakes.”

– Yves, driving instructor on the Unimog 

“We try to pass on our experience so they avoid making serious mistakes.” This is why the training course lasts 14 days and consists of two parts. An initial training session explains how to use the pump as well as its safety features – And the Unimog has a whole range of them! For example, the cab is equipped with oxygen masks and an oxygen cylinder. This would enable the three regular crew members plus one extra person to survive in the flames for five minutes. If required, the vehicle is equipped with a 15-bar pump operated by a PTO shaft in addition to an electric pump that doesn't require oxygen. This supplies the self-protection system with water.

Several nozzles have been fitted all over the vehicle to generate a water mist that completely surrounds it, thereby protecting the vehicle from heat. The heat shield can last for at least three minutes – enough time to pass through a wall of fire or withstand a firestorm. At least 400 of the 4,000 litres of water in the extinguishing tank are reserved for emergency situations like these. A control panel located between the front seats enables the crew to check the water levels or analyse pump malfunctions as well as to operate the siren, the blue light, the auxiliary headlamps and the external loudspeaker.

Yves explains the battalion’s working method: “For wildfires, a team consisting of four Unimog vehicles and one command vehicle is always used. The team may also request air assistance, either from our two firefighting helicopters or from the firefighting aircraft stationed in Nîmes-Garons”.

For their own safety, the frontline firefighters must also be thoroughly competent in off-road driving: they mustn’t let challenging terrain such as steep slopes prevent them from reaching the source of the fire or from performing retreat manoeuvres. This is why the second week is dedicated to intensive driver training – because the driver needs to master the Unimog before the Unimog can master the terrain!

Photos: Hans Müller, Marseille & Viking Air Ltd.