A major alarm in Hamburg's Speicherstadt district: there’s a fire! Around 30 fire engines, turntable ladders, command vehicles and other fire-fighting vehicles move out with flashing blue lights. Fortunately, this is not a genuine operation, but a 1:87 scale simulation in the town of “Knuffingen”, the centrepiece of Miniatur Wunderland, a model railway and miniature airport attraction in Hamburg. “Nevertheless, the curiosity of visitors of all ages for the emergency drives is enormous,” says Axel Dirks. He is team leader for the Car System in Miniatur Wunderland. “A total of 55 fire engines based on models from various countries are on the road on the constantly growing layout,” Dirks explains – a good dozen of them in the USA section.
Preparing a model for use in Miniatur Wunderland does pose technical challenges. Especially the drive (similar to the Faller Car System), but also the lighting (at the top of the list is an airfield fire engine with more than 70 LEDs). But it’s also about actually building the model: “We take the bodyshells from various manufacturers, which we then fit with a drive system and make them prototypical,” Dirks explains. When it comes to the fire engines in Knuffingen, the experts have looked around their own city, at the Hamburg fire brigade.
“Our visitors’ response to the fleet of blue lights is consistently good,” the expert says happily. It’s not only children who are enthusiastic; adult firefighters also pay their respects to the miniatures. What is particularly high praise? Dirks doesn't have to think long: “When a visitor says, ‘That’s exactly how we move out during an operation!’” The model makers won’t run out of models any time soon. Just how diverse the world of fire engines, ambulances and other vehicles from the field of aid organisations is is demonstrated, among other things, by a collection in H0 format that Miniatur Wunderland displays in showcases.
Contemporary witnesses of playful appropriation
When children play with models and figures and imitate the work of the rescue services, fire brigades and the like, they also learn about how important the commitment of voluntary and full-time emergency workers is to ensuring people’s safety. In the best case, this can reinforce their decision to become involved in a relief organisation themselves later on in life. This educational dimension of imitative play in all its forms has been recognised, above all, since the 19th century. This fits in with the development of voluntary aid organisations such as the volunteer fire brigades. They also developed in German-speaking countries in the 19th century – and the use of the German word “Feuerwehr” (fire brigade) was first documented in 1847.
Over the years and decades, numerous traditional toy manufacturers have tackled the topic of fire brigades and have further developed their portfolios in the process. One example is Lego’s clamp building block sets: kit #308 for a “Fire Station” premiered as early as 1958. At that time, however, you could only construct the building, not the fire engines. In the early years, Lego still produced conventional model cars to go with its bricks – for example, a turntable fire engine ladder on a British Bedford chassis. In 1968, the first fire engine made of studded bricks followed. In 1970, fire engines with the new, smaller wheels appeared, and in 1973 the fire stations with three vehicles. Since then, the world of Lego fire-fighting crews has grown continuously – including miniature figures with important tools such as compressed air breathing apparatus (since 1978), vehicles and fire stations. So when it comes to the fire brigade, there’s plenty of personnel and technology for role-playing games in Lego City.
The toys and models that are the contemporary witnesses of the playful appropriation of rescuing, extinguishing, recovering and playing can also be experienced in many museums. Since March 2021, Museum Traiskirchen in Austria, for example, has been exhibiting the extensive collection of fire engine models that Professor Herbert Arndorfer has built up over almost 60 years as a collector and model maker. At the interface between toys and real vehicles is a turntable ladder that has been part of the collection of the German Fire Fighting Museum in Fulda since 2007: the model, which dates back to the economic miracle era, was originally part of a children’s carousel.
Learning and practising
For Jörg Jansen, the fire brigade also plays an important role in toys. The 55-year-old gas fitter and plumber from the municipal utility of Iserlohn owns a collection of around 2,000 Playmobil figures and roughly 100 vehicles to go with them. With them, the long-time volunteer firefighter can recreate fire operations of all kinds. He uses them, above all, to teach fire safety to children and to train emergency departments. He says: “One advantage is that, as a classic toy, Playmobil very often dispenses with any branding of the vehicles and instead offers easily recognisable prototypes whose function is just as evident to experts as it is to children.”
It all started about 20 years ago. At that time, Jansen, who has been involved in fire safety education since 1992, explained the work of the fire brigade in a kindergarten using a new model house as an example. But the girls and boys in the day-care centre noticed a major shortcoming in the teaching material: neither fire engine nor emergency forces were to be seen in the diorama. “And where is the fire brigade now?” they promptly asked Jansen. He decided to liven up the scene with Playmobil figures that matched the scale. “Then a turntable ladder was added as the first vehicle, then more fire engines and more and more figures,” Jansen laughs, recalling it all.
In the meantime, the collection includes “almost everything that exists in fire brigades in Germany”, according to Jansen, including the control centre and the breathing apparatus section. Playmobil models almost always form the basis, and the model maker edits and customises them as required. In 2008, he presented his Playmobil fire brigade worlds for the first time at an exhibition – the response from the public was tremendous. In the meantime, the man from Iserlohn also presents the dioramas and scenes in social media and exchanges ideas with a growing circle of interested people. The contacts come from all over Europe and beyond. “My furthest fan is a professional firefighter from Melbourne, Australia,” says Jansen. He still uses his collection for fire safety education. And in simulation games for fire brigades in the surrounding area, the Playmobil world is also used to re-enact operations. The fire chiefs enjoy the same strengths that the toys offer as the children in Jansen’s fire safety lessons: “Working with the figures simply makes everything extremely vivid,” says Jansen.