To celebrate International Firefighters day and salute the men and women who make the world a safer place in challenging conditions, we take a look at the essential contribution of volunteers in fulfilling these critical missions.


 Jean-François Le Bigot, Head of Facility Management and Real Estate at Airbus Helicopters, was recently nominated Knight of the National Order of Merit in France for his accomplishments as a volunteer firefighter. After enrolling as a teenager, he is now able to experience first-hand how helicopters can best support firefighters in hostile environments.

In addition to becoming a firefighting officer in 2003, a position that provides him with both an institutional and operational capacity, Jean-François Le Bigot has also been a flying firefighter for ten years, first on an H125 and now on a Super Puma. “As a flying firefighter, I act as an additional pair of eyes within the aircraft. My role is to provide the pilot and the team on the ground with the most accurate description of the situation and how the fire is evolving”, says Le Bigot. Consequently, to ensure successful airdropping of the Bambi Bucket and warn the operational team of any particular risks, flying firefighters have to ensure constant communication with the Direction of Special Operations from the French Sécurité Civile. 

Helicopter-assisted firefighting operations range from search and rescue, to evacuating inhabitants and personnel as quickly as possible, transporting essential supplies to support ground operations when no vehicle is available. Le Bigot recalls one specific example: “During the devastating Gonfaron fire in the Var, France, in 2021, Airbus helicopters played a major role in saving the lives of those who lived close by and later on, in securing parts of the land affected by the embers. Helicopters equipped with bambi buckets remain an efficient complementary tool in fighting fires in the region.”

Making fire fighting missions possible

To make sure that Airbus Helicopters employees acting as volunteer firefighters are supported in both of their roles, a State-backed programme provides them with the necessary tools to put their skills at the disposal of the fire brigade. “For instance, a few of our working days can be used to make ourselves available in case of emergencies in the region or for training purposes, as opposed to only outside of our working hours. This means that the brigade can count on a much stronger base once the fire season starts”, Le Bigot adds. 

Indeed, training represents an essential part of volunteer firefighters’ tasks. Through general and specialised sessions, volunteers are required to demonstrate their ability to perform in all conditions, even when their safety is at risk. As a flying firefighter with a focus on forest fires, Le Bigot’s own training programme includes advanced helicopter knowledge, accident survival processes and Super Puma operations. And this is not the only way Le Bigot’s occupation at Airbus Helicopters and his commitment as a volunteer firefighter converge: “I believe this has a lot to do with values as well. Courage and devotion is the firefighter’s motto, and being able to see it come to life as a volunteer inspires me to uphold this sense of service at Airbus Helicopters every day.” 

Committed to saving lives

Surprisingly, Le Bigot’s commitment as a volunteer firefighter stems from a completely different field. “I first started scuba diving when I was eleven, and pretty quickly, it appeared that rescue skills represent a significant part of this activity. After qualifying as a lifeguard, I wanted to extend this ability as a volunteer firefighter, to put this passion to use within a team of expert firefighters who dedicate their lives to saving those of others.” Whilst altruism, resilience and courage are some of the key characteristics firefighters embody in their daily operations, according to Le Bigot, this also requires sacrifices that one should measure before enrolling as a volunteer firefighter.

As the fire season gets near in Europe and beyond, volunteer firefighters represent around 80% of firefighting brigades in France, a share that proves how engaged communities are when vital assets and even lives are at risk. “Being a volunteer firefighter is a vocation and ultimately, it needs to remain that way throughout your commitment. When you become a volunteer firefighter, there are no vested interests, it’s all about facing adversity in order to protect people and natural spaces”, explains Le Bigot.