China debates training of firefighters

Record death toll in last week's Tianjin blasts again raises concerns over a non-professional firefighting force

Grieving family members (above) of firefighters killed in the Tianjin blazes at a makeshift memorial yesterday. Exhausted firefighters (left) taking a break from their dangerous task trying to control the inferno.
Grieving family members (above) of firefighters killed in the Tianjin blazes at a makeshift memorial yesterday.PHOTOS: XINHUA, REUTERS
Grieving family members (above) of firefighters killed in the Tianjin blazes at a makeshift memorial yesterday. Exhausted firefighters (left) taking a break from their dangerous task trying to control the inferno.
Exhausted firefighters taking a break from their dangerous task trying to control the inferno.PHOTOS: XINHUA, REUTERS

The deaths of 40, mostly young, firefighters in the Tianjin explosions last week left many wondering whether China's firemen have the necessary training and experience to tackle such a crisis.

The record death toll, the worst since the Communist Party took power in 1949, could rise further as there are still 52 firefighters among the 57 people missing after the blasts that have killed 114 so far.

Already, some think that the firefighters who were first on the scene might have aggravated the situation by spraying water, which reportedly reacted with the chemicals and caused a second explosion.


Criticism is growing, given that most of the dead firefighters were young, aged from 19 to 23, and many reportedly had never fought a fire before, much less an inferno.

Similar allegations have been made in previous incidents.

In January, officials had to rebut talk that rash actions led to the death of five firefighters, aged from 18 to 22, after an 11-storey building collapsed on them while they were fighting a blaze at a warehouse in north-eastern Harbin city.

Statistics from the public security ministry show more than 140 firefighters, their average age 24, were killed between 2008 and 2012. Ten major fires since 2013 left 20 dead.

Before the Tianjin blasts, the deadliest incident was reportedly in November 2003, after 20 firefighters were killed when parts of a burning building in central Hunan province collapsed on them.

Observers say the key factor for China's higher fatality rates - compared with zero deaths in the past 70 years for Norway - lies with the make-up of its firefighting force.


Most are young soldiers from the paramilitary People's Armed Police deployed to local firefighting departments for two years - barely enough time for them to gain sufficient training and experience.

Nankai University's fire safety expert Zhou Xiaomeng told media on Monday that the lack of career firefighters such as those in countries like the United States is a major stumbling block to raising China's capabilities in tackling emergencies.

"Young firefighters usually lack experience as they are just 'tem- porary' firefighters waiting to finish their military service," he said.

Also, there is an over-reliance on firefighters for all kinds of tasks - from saving pets stuck in drains to removing bee hives from trees.

An unnamed commentator from party-run Guangming Daily wrote in March after the Harbin fire that this over-reliance was an impediment to firefighters getting specialist training to tackle blazes.

"As our country modernises, people tend to cherish life even more. But rescuers should get the same level of respect as those being rescued. On this note, it is imperative that we speed up the professionalisation of the firefighting force," wrote the commentator.

A third factor is a shortage of firefighters faced by many cities as a result of the lower priority accorded to them compared with the armed forces and police. For instance, Shanghai, which has 7,000 firemen for its 23 million people, needs 16,000 more to meet the international standard of one fireman for every 1,000 residents.

Statistics show that in 2012, China had 130,000 firemen in all, compared with 2.3 million personnel in the People's Liberation Army. Its firefighting force is only one-tenth that of the US, though the American population is 4.3 times smaller.

The Tianjin blasts have rekindled a fierce debate over how China could recruit more firefighters and whether it should focus on grooming professional firefighters.

In recent years, Shanghai and some cities in coastal Shandong province have set up professional fire brigades to try to turn firefighting into a viable career option.

Proponents believe doing so would offer firefighters a longer career span to gain training and experience while critics think professionals cannot match the dedication and bravery of young soldiers.

"Fighting fire relies more on experience and wisdom than on just being young and brave," said commentator Zhang Hong from state broadcaster CCTV on his microblog in January after the Harbin fire.

He added: "In most developed countries, firefighting is a profession and firefighters do the job for a lifetime."

Last November, Global Times commentator Ni Dandan, noting that soldier-firefighters are paid only around 2,000 yuan (S$440) a month, called for more competitive wages and benefits such as a pension and insurance "to make the position as attractive as possible" in order to raise recruitment numbers.

"Certainly, it will be a large burden on local finance. But ensuring the city's safety for both residents and their properties will never come easy and at a low cost," she wrote.

For beauty salon owner Wang Shan, 36, having a professional firefighting force would make her worry less about letting her 16-year-old son pursue it as a career.

She has thought of letting him enter the army - after he finishes high school and before going to university - so that he could learn perseverance and determination, even though he might be deployed to the firefighting department.

"Every job has a certain level of danger and risk. Such incidents do not happen frequently and I'm sure the government would be beefing up firefighters' capabilities," she told The Straits Times.

"I would let my son do what he likes but I also hope it would be a job that pays well and is not overly dangerous," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'China debates training of firefighters'. Print Edition | Subscribe