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AN SOS FROM OUR HEROES: FIRE SERVICE IN KOREA

In Korea, May 25 is Disaster Prevention Day. Disaster prevention should be rightly claimed by the people, and learning how to prevent disasters or minimizing losses from them is crucial. However, in order for this privilege to be enjoyed, firefighters have to silently plow a lonely furrow behind the scenes, deprived of basic human rights by the state. Amid this paradoxical situation, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) attempts to diagnose the problems firefighters are facing and introduce necessary changes that firefighters demand.

The Present Condition of Fire Services

Superhero or Handyman?

Currently, there are approximately 40,000 fire-fighting officers in South Korea. The ratio of officers in relation to the whole population is estimated to be 1 to 1,320. This is a frightening statistic, as this figure is higher than both the United States (US) and Japan, which have ratios of 1 to 912 and 1 to 799, respectively, and because the extent of the services provided ranges from traditional fire suppression, rescuing lives and properties, to rescuing pets, simply opening broken doors, or fixing door knobs. In most countries, pets are rescued on special occasions when they are stuck on a cliff, and breaking open doors takes place during emergency situations only.

Disjunction between Administration and Actual Scene

In the US, governmental organizations such as the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conduct professional studies concerning the safety of fire-fighting officers.

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The US also operates hospitals dedicated to firefighters through an organization called the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation. In the case of Japan, fire-fighting equipment has been simplified and miniaturized for elderly officers, as the population is aging rapidly. Now, officers in Japan use fire extinguishing agents or foams, which are much easier than water to carry around. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an affiliated body of the World Health Organization (WHO), suggests that toxic fumes and the loud noise from fire engines may result in cancer and hypoacusis, a condition in which an individual’s sensitivity to sound is sharply increased. In order to prevent this, the IARC set out a guideline that suggests fire-fighting officers wear earplugs and introduces an exhaust fumes control system and a carbon monoxide detector. However, the absence of communication between the government and the working-level officers often troubles firefighters in Korea. The guideline provided by the WHO is completely new to most officers. According to one interview, they were uninformed about whether the acrid smell in their fire engine was a carcinogen. As a result, the average life expectancy of fire-fighting officers in Korea is 58 years, while the general public is expected to live for 81.4 years. Losing such precious professional workers is a grave national loss. Additionally, the government replaced firefighter apparel a couple of times simply because of the color. When it was orange, the government stated that the status of these civil servants might nosedive, and when it was black, that the uniform would not appear as conspicuous as it should. Despite the changes in color, a new debate arose on whether the government should prepare new apparel, as it had maintained the use of polyurethane, a highly flammable material. The change in material is expected to cost \200,000 per person, summing to \16 billion in total.

Interview

The SKT interviewed a fire-fighting officer so that Kingos may be able to have a better grasp of the very circumstances under which the firefighters in Korea are working.

Q1 Please introduce yourself to Kingos.

I am currently managing public relations activities in the Fire Administration Division of the Mapo Fire Station in Seoul. The reason I decided to become a fire-fighting officer was that I was looking for a new job after being discharged from military service, and I simply found the fire-fighting duty to be appealing to me.

Q2 What do you find most rewarding as a firefighter?

I have been working for more than three years, taking part in tasks directly on the scene, which include fire suppression and rescue missions. However, there is no particular moment that I could pick as rewarding because field activities are part of firefighting officers’ daily routine. If anything, I occasionally feel rewarded while I am on my way to a scene, or as I leave for the day after receiving a number of calls and going through exceedingly heavy tasks.

Q3 What is the actual position of affairs? Is there any discrepancy between your expectation and the reality?

Not only are fire service agencies very hard working, with each member of the organizations painstakingly devoted to their job, but they also save lives, for which they are expected to receive exclusive public recognition. In reality, however, fire fighting seems to be recognized only for its work intensity as well as high risks. On the contrary, in the US, the public almost worships their fire-fighting officers as heroes. I think there is still a lot of room for improvement in Korea’s public awareness with respect to this. I would also love to see some reinforcement in welfare and safety management. Nevertheless, most firefighters do not hold a grudge against the current situation. They just try to make the best of what it has to offer them.

Q4 Do you feel your primary rights as a firefighter have been violated?

There are regional disparities. Very few firefighters are considered national public service personnel, while the vast majority of firefighters are considered local public service personnel. National public service personnel receive wages and welfare benefits from the state, while local public service personnel are paid by each local autonomous entity’s budget. I would say Seoul is a bit better off. In the case of local provinces, many firefighters suffer from a lack of personal safety equipment. They often have frayed, wornout shoes that have not been replaced for two years, and they eventually purchase new ones out of their own pocket. With regard to the general system, firefighters demand the ease of workload by changing the current double shift to a triple shift, together with loading three people into an ambulance rather than two people. Moreover, their proficiency pay is only around \4,300 per each mobilization. I sympathize with them, and all of the situations above have to be ameliorated and reformed.

Q5 Please tell us about the “Bad Mark System.”

The “Bad Mark System” imposes penalty points on safety accidents that take place on the scene, and they are reflected when it comes to performance evaluation later on. It was controversial at the introduction stage, as it did not take the morale of personnel into account. In practice, it is impossible to follow all of the directions given in the field manual. The situation at the scene is highly volatile, and if disadvantages follow every time the manual is not followed, firefighters will passively engage in dealing with the situation. None of the staff members think that the “Bad Mark System” is as telling or helpful as it should be.

Q6 Is there one thing you think that is really in need of reform?

Fortunately, welfare policies for firefighters as well as safety equipment supplies are increasing. However, despite the fact that a number of firefighters suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) owing to the loss of their colleagues and the brutality of the scene, people think we are going to be just all right and take our sacrifice for granted, or sometimes even see us as beneath them. I guess it would be of great help if the public could change their attitude and be a little more supportive rather than offering occasional beatings and insults.

Q7 Any final thoughts you would like to share with Kingos?

You had better be aware of basic first aid emergency treatment and of how to react to negligent accidents, because there is no telling where or when we might experience an emergency. As such, being prepared for initial countermeasures such as knowing how to conduct cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or administering first aid to a patient, albeit non-professional, is crucial to your safety.

Marking Disaster Prevention Day, let us pay tribute to and be grateful for those who work in silence and dedicate their lives to our safety. Let us also be aware that the regional disparities, the lack of healthcare, and the armchair arguments from which fire-fighting officers suffer, all directly affect our own safety.

이재은  2wodms@gmail.com

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