Tokyo raises accident awareness in safety learning centres

It was light-hearted fun after days of serious discussions of weighty issues such as the competing territorial claims of China and its neighbours or Japan's dwindling if still substantial aid to South-east Asian nations.

There we were, crouching under a sturdy table, holding on as tight as we can to its legs to prevent ourselves from being flung hither-thither by a force equivalent to the massive 9.0 magnitude quake in eastern Japan four years ago that caused the devastating tsunami which killed almost 19,000 people and precipitated the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Or frantically following newly learnt steps to operate a fire extinguisher to put out a life-size kitchen fire raging on a wall screen. Or making ourselves small - to the height of a child, so as to not breathe in too much smoke that rises - while trying to escape a smoke-filled maze in darkness.

We had good fun trying to survive these simulations of earthquakes and fires and laughing at each other's bungling. But, to me, we also learnt some simple but potentially life-saving tips through hands-on ways - and mistakes - that are likely to stay with us for being more deeply ingrained in our minds than if we were merely to read a manual.

We were 19 journalists from Asean on a media trip recently to Japan of which focus was infrastructure, with visits to facilities such as a post office mail sorting hub, hospital, water purification plant, geothermal power plant and even a smart city project that included seven houses, with families living in them, that ran partially on hydrogen cell power.

It was fitting that on the day we visited a hospital, we were also taken to the Tokyo Fire Department Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Centre, one of three such centres that the department runs.

It has an apt name too, for here, Tokyoites young and old can learn how to deal with potentially life threatening natural and man-made events, from a kitchen fire to an earthquake.

As we entered the centre, a hive of activity on a public holiday afternoon, our attention was quickly caught by a young father with his toddler son who was decked out in a fireman's suit somewhat too big for him. And this is what the centre is about, teaching people from a young age how to prevent accidents and when they occur, how to stay safe, raise the alarm and rescue others. Any Tokyo resident can walk in to take part in any of the centre's learning activities for free, led by instructors who come from other parts of the fire department.

Our instructor was Ms Yukie Akiyama, 42, who had worked in fire prevention inspection for six years before moving over to the centre two years ago. Cheery and animated, she took us through our paces with the help of our interpreter Rika Hinata - and lively posters and videos.

She had a sense of humour too. After some of us had tried our hand at kitchen-fire fighting, she told some of the more enthusiastic members among us, laughter in her voice, that they would have had their hair singed if they had done what they did in a real-life fire: going too close to the fire. Or they might have also lost consciousness from smoke inhalation by not bending low.

Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to try it, but at the fire department's Honjo centre, which is near some waterways, there is a rainstorm simulation section where people learn to protect themselves in severe wind and rain, including how to open a basement or car door in case of floods.

"You experience withstanding gusty winds and also opening the door to evacuate yourself if you are stuck in a flood," explained Mr Tetsuro Kikuta, chief of the Ikebukuro centre, when asked about the rainstorm simulation section at Honjo by this reporter. "If there is 30 to 40 centimetres of water, due to the pressure from the water, you may find it very difficult to open the door to let yourself out."

If we should have such a centre in Singapore, a rainstorm and lightning storm simulation section would be very useful. We could even have road accident and MRT emergency sections!

Indeed, not just Singapore, but all urban centres worldwide should have such life safety learning centres. In small incidents, individuals would have learnt enough skills to potentially save themselves from serious injuries or even death, and in large ones, there would be less panic and more orderliness and self-help before rescuers arrive.

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