Bergen’s firefighters navigate crisis

Surviving the pandemic

Photo: Ilan Kelman
A sign at the entrance to one of Bryggen’s narrow streets reads “Smoking forbidden.” Over time, the city has suffered 16 major fires.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Firefighters risk their lives to save others. They work in all conditions, from howling blizzards to scorching heat, never stopping, not even during terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks. How does this work affect them?

A research project I am involved with examines psychological responses of firefighters to crisis. We are comparing Bergen, Norway, with the city of London by interviewing leaders in the fire departments. We asked about stressful situations they experienced and how they coped with them, notably being on the front line during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The project is funded by Regionalt forsk­ningsfond Vestland, which is the regional research fund for the county where Bergen sits. Jarle Eid, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Bergen leads our full team with the London group headed by Gianluca Pescaroli, associate professor in operational continuity and disaster resilience at University College London.

In nine interviews in Bergen and eight in London, we heard stories about difficult operational situations the firefighters experienced, how they responded during and afterward, and what they would recommend for improving. We asked about their training and unmet needs. We sought to comprehend what worked during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic meant to them.

Visiting fire stations in Bergen and London assisted us in understanding their work environments. We witnessed operators taking emergency calls, looked at some of their equipment, and met key people in charge of keeping our cities safe. After all, both locations certainly know about fire!

The Great Fire of London burned for four days in September 1666, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches along with many other buildings. World War II brought continual conflagrations from incendiary bombs during the Blitz including a dozen firefighters killed during an air raid in late December 1940. More recently, the Grenfell Tower residential flats caught fire on 14 June 14, 2017, burning for over two days with 72 deaths.

With its wooden buildings and narrow streets, Bergen’s wharf, Bryggen, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979—and it is also a firefighter’s nightmare. Since it rose to the fore as a trading center after being founded around 1070, the city carried on after suffering flames in 1198, 1248, 1413, 1428, 1455, 1476, 1582, 1675, 1686, 1702, 1751, 1756, 1771, 1901, 1916, and 1955.

Photo: Colourbox
With its wooden buildings and narrow streets, Bryggen in Bergen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and it is also a firefighter’s nightmare.

Today, both cities sport professional, trained, and experienced fire services. Three are detailed fire regulations with monitoring and enforcement, and they implement fire-resistant materials, building designs, and planning approaches. Nonetheless, fires remain a regular feature of everyday life, but they rarely get out of control as in past centuries. Meanwhile, firefighters must deal with all forms of disaster, from vehicle crashes to people threatening suicide to bombs such as the explosions on London’s transport system on July 7, 2005, and the shattering of Oslo’s center on July 22, 2011.

The subjects of our interviews related the stresses they feel. They receive personal threats, and they witness colleagues being hurt and killed. When they are called out, they do not always know what they are heading into or how they will come out of it. Periods of quiescence produce boredom, punctuated by the adrenaline of entering a burning building and the exhaustion of overnight shifts.

COVID-19 brought loneliness and isolation since shifts could not overlap, and everything had to be cleaned for each handover, severing their previous connections. When team members were sick or isolating, those on duty lost competence and camaraderie. Conversely, everyone gained skills in remote working and training while making connections without face-to-face contact.

Differences emerged in specific situations. London firefighters deal with unexploded ordnance, typically from World War II, which would be more unique for those in Bergen. One unusual situation in London was turning up to a fire in an illegal cannabis factory so the occupants objected to the firefighters entering! Londoners enter highrises far more frequently than Bergensers.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Columnist Ilan Kelman participated in a research project in Bergen to examine the psychological responses of firefighters in times of crisis.

Yet gaps and needs revealed parallels, even with London being about 25 times the size of Bergen’s population. Increased mentoring would be useful for new recruits, in terms of dealing with stressful situations before, during, and after. Training ought to balance operational skills, such as diving into smoke, and leadership for dealing with colleagues and progressing toward management. Quality assurance means continual evaluation and honest self-reflection, which are not easy within a culture of courage. Both fire services are still heavily dominated by men.

Based on the lessons and remaining challenges, we hope our research might contribute to improving the safety of firefighters and the cities they serve. We remain grateful that professional, technical, experienced responders to blazes are always just minutes away.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.