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March 2005

Crash And Burn

Munich's Emergency Services Love a Minor Drama

It was not long ago that a friend and I were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon at a local café, people watching through the large windows. It soon became apparent, after a host of near misses, that it was not clear as to who had the right of way at the busy junction outside. Then the inevitable happened, and we witnessed a crash. The word “crash” is perhaps a little dramatic—“prang” will suffice. A young man on a moped clipped a car. The scene that ensued was incredible. The two parties involved stopped in the middle of the intersection to “have words” and caused a traffic jam of London- in-rush-hour proportions. When the police arrived, they, too, joined the mid-intersection discussion, until eventually deciding to move the debate to the side of the road. I have to point out that while I do not usually take pleasure in accident scenes, we could not have hoped for better mealtime entertainment. In the time that it took the waitress to process our order, the chef to cook the meal, us to eat our food and to order and consume desserts and coffees, the scene was still unfolding before our eyes. The third police car had arrived and, at last count, there were around seven police officers. Passers-by could be forgiven for thinking that either there had been an accident of massive proportions or perhaps they were filming an action-packed Hollywood movie right here in Munich. At the time, I put the incident down to the fact that it was a quiet Sunday and perhaps the police had nothing better to do (maybe Munich needs more doughnut shops?). But then it happened again.

In the evening rush hour, a car hit the back of another on Leopoldstrasse. The damage was not serious beyond a scratched bumper. So I found it un-believable that, again, the police turned up by the dozen. I could not work out what sur-prised me the most: the fact that this tiny accident required so many police officers or that the cars involved did not, and were not made to, clear the road. This meant that for the hour or so that the police were analyzing the damage and deciding who was to blame, which included lots of authoritative wielding of tape measures, the traffic jam was building up all the way to Nuremberg.

But, my favorite instance of surplus emergency services has to be the one that involves the fire department. While walking to a party at a friend’s place, my boyfriend and I saw from a distance that there was an “incident” near her apartment. The road was full of fire engines and we could see a huge ladder against the side of an apartment building. As we got closer, we realized it was the building where she lived and, closer still, we saw a pair of fireman entering her front door. More fire engines arrived and a group of onlookers gathered. We were worried about the scale of the fire and apprehensive about what we might find. So, as we nervously fought our way past a group of firefighters, we were amazed to find, well, nothing. The friend had lit a BBQ on her balcony, which, according to an over-cautious neighbor, had got “out of hand.” I am not quite sure how out of hand a fire must be to require so many firemen, but I do know that this does not happen in England. Actually, in some parts of England the fire would have burned itself out by the time the fire department had arrived, so I am not all scorn for the German emergency services.

But these incidents (and yes, I have witnessed more than three, but don’t have space to list them all here—you get the jist) have left me with a strong opinion on the subject. Everyone knows that efficiency and caution are something to be praised, but dare I say it, the authorities in Munich do appear to err slightly on the over-dramatic side. I have not even started on the subject of wasting taxpayers’ money. But it does make you wonder how much each call out is costing us folk, who want nothing more than to enjoy the occasional barbecue with friends. Germans I've spoken to about this claim it is clearly necessary to send out the full team, as it is only upon arriving at the scene of the accident that the crews know exactly what equipment and how many men are required. But you’re not telling me that a member of the public, when calling the emergency services to report an incident in the first place, is not capable of distinguishing between a serious pile-up and a minor bump? Or between a major blaze and an innocent barbecue? Still, looking on the bright side, I guess there are some advantages to the emergency services turning up en masse: 20 men in uniform are sure to liven up any party! <<<

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