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OPINION: Why Matteo Salvini needs to stop dressing up as a firefighter

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OPINION: Why Matteo Salvini needs to stop dressing up as a firefighter
Matteo Salvini (centre) wearing the uniform of the Italian fire brigade. Photo: Twitter
14:26 CET+01:00
Italian firefighters tell The Local they have had enough of the interior minister, who abuses their uniform while forgetting to give them more funding.

Deputy Prime mInister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini seems to have spent most of his seven months in office so far courting controversy on social media.

In between insulting foreigners, threatening his political enemies, and letting his fans know about his favourite brands (it was Fanta yesterday, in case anyone cares) one of his favourite pastimes is posting photos of himself wearing the uniforms of Italy’s police and fire brigade.

Last week it was mountain rescue, before that he did a press conference wearing the full uniform of Italy’s fire and rescue helicopter crew. He frequently wears police jackets at rallies.

As interior minister, Salvini is the head of the Italian police and fire brigade. But as people are increasingly pointing out, that doesn’t give him any right to wear their uniforms.

There’s been growing irritation among Italian firefighters as Salvini posts one photo after another. Still, so far, few wanted to openly criticise the man who is, technically, kind of their boss.

But after the umpteenth photo posted to social media, combined with a financial slap in the face after the government “forgot” them in its budget, Italian firefighters are furious.

One fire brigade union leader, Costantino Saporito of the USB Vigil del Fuoco, denounced Salvini’s “illegally” wearing police and firefighters’ uniforms and said he should be fined, because he’s not a member of the police, fire service or the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police force.

In a letter to the Interior ministry today, he pointed out that the law states anyone “who is not really a police officer or a firefighter cannot wear their insignia in public,” and said anyone who breaks this law can be fined up to €929.

He urged Salvini to “stop this improper use immediately… in order to avoid harm to the image of the ministry.”

Salvini was quick to dismiss critics on Twitter (where else?), saying he was “proud to wear these jackets given to me as a gift.”

But gifts or not, the fact is that many firefighters are angry about Salvini’s abuse of their uniform as part of his online propaganda.

This is personal for me. My husband is in the Italian fire brigade. He passed the incredibly tough training and has spent nearly eight years putting his own life at risk to save others.

He would never say that, of course, because like most firefighters he’s ridiculously modest about it all.

I didn’t even know until recently, for example, that he saved peoples’ lives in the aftermath of the earthquake in Amatrice in 2016. I only found out when, two years later, a letter arrived announcing a (very small) bonus for his efforts.

The fact that firefighters get paid badly is not news to anyone. But you’d hope that government ministers would pay them, if not cash, then a little respect. And Salvini does the total opposite.

While it's cute when friends' children ask to dress up in my husband's firefighter gear and play at being a hero, it's not quite as appealing when the co-Deputy Prime Minister of Italy does the same thing.

And as far as many actual firefighters are concerned, playtime is now over for Matteo.

“He makes improper use of our uniform,” said one. “It’s complicated, because in theory he’s the chief of the fire brigade and police. But he doesn’t have the right to wear the uniform.”

“He wears the uniform only for his propaganda,” another said. 

“I'm angry that he wears my uniform, because a real firefighter helps all people, even if they’re immigrants from another country. Not like him who instead publicly hates immigrants.”

“It’s in the decree that Salvini has been editing,” he said, quickly retrieving a copy of the piece of legislation that all firefighters know off by heart: decreto legislativo del 13/10/2005 n.217, which reads: ‘The National Fire Brigade intervenes in the protection of human life, in safeguarding goods and the environment.’

“All human life,” he said, pointedly.

Maybe Salvini imagines these posed photos give him credibility; that they make it look like he has the full support of the heroic members of the police and fire brigade, and that he in turn is supporting them.

But in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Seeing him dressing up in their uniform is now too much for firefighters who say Salvini and his government have “mocked” and “forgotten” the fire brigade in the new budget, despite having promised more funding.

“Contrary to the government's announcements, they mocked the firefighters,” stated Antonio Brizzi, secretary general of the Conapo union, which represents  members of the Italian fire brigade.

“We get recognition from citizens daily,” he said. "Yet the League-M5S government, in their budget, went in the opposite direction to their announcements.”

Not only has the government “not allocated a penny” extra for the fire service, he said, “what is worse is that it then mocked us by giving €100 million to the armed forces and police, forgetting the firefighters, again.”

This is "the exact opposite of promises made repeatedly to the fire service by the deputy prime minsters,” said Rizzi.

As one firefighter at this station in Tuscany put it: “If he really wants to dress as a firefighter, and be paid as he thinks we should be paid, he can always apply for the job.”

The firefighters who spoke to me for this article have been kept anonymous, as they did not have official permission to speak to the press.

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