Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hot Job: Paris’s pompiers turn up the temperature

An internationally accepted cliché, the image of the fireman is revoked on a weekly basis on ladies’ nights across the Western world. Strong, virile and well chiseled, these modern day versions of Adonis boast the enviable quality of being both heroes and sex symbols at the same time.

Among France’s vast array of men and women in uniform, the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris are easily the most popular. Established by Napoleon in the early 1800’s, the pompiers are part of the army, their main function being, as their job title suggests, firefighting and rescue in buildings that are centuries old, constructed largely of wood, and featuring none of the infrastructure – such as fire alarms and emergency sprinkler systems – found in today’s construction. Battling flames and saving the odd cat, however, is only part of their duty, and it’s not uncommon for the pompiers to be first on the scene of a party gone awry (they’re equipped to treat drug overdose but unauthorized to make arrests for possession of illicit substances, making them the preferred option for those whose debauchery has gone too far) and car accidents. In a city where the police are criticized for their inefficiency and poor training – and, even decades after the Second World War, for their collaboration with the Vichy government – the firemen are, to the average French taxpayer, far more trustworthy.

The physical demands of the job mandate a grueling exercise schedule, and many an early riser (often of the female variety) enjoys the perk of performing their own workout alongside Paris’s famed boys in red and blue. Whether they’re sprinting up the stairwells of Montmartre, running through the walkways of Les Halles or jogging through the well-groomed pathways of Les Tuileries, the pompiers are indefatigable athletes, and they always have an encouraging word (‘allez, mademoiselle !’) or a flirtatious quip (‘you’re in luck, man, you can catch up to her…she’s going pretty slowly!’) to keep motivation among those they share the space with relatively high.

Each year, on the eve of Bastille Day – when France celebrates the fall of the notorious prison and a bloody revolution that saw many a nobleman’s head roll – the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris host their most popular public relations event, the firemen’s ball. Open to the public, this alcohol-fueled soirée is a prime opportunity for those partial to men (and women) in uniform to cut a rug with a local hero…and for local heroes to capitalize on their elevated stature among the common man. Held in the various casernes (fire halls) that dot the city, le bal des pompiers runs into the wee hours of the morning, with the firemen in each caserne engaging in friendly competition to out-do one another. Seasoned Parisians know which casernes throw the best parties, and many make the rounds throughout the night. Dance cards fill up fast, however, and those who want to get up close and personal with the pompier of their choice are wise to arrive a little early.

Not to be upstaged by nightclub impostors, Paris’s firemen always plan a few surprises for their yearly fête. Sometimes, to the delight of the crowd, this involves a striptease…the concept being, one imagines, that if the bal des pompiers is the occasion to get to know the firemen in the flesh, they might as well go all the way.