Firemen deserve betterFirefighters knelt before Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, pleading for better working conditions and compensations in return for the amount of risks, danger, and stress that accompany their duties. Their teary call added to the somber and poignant air at the memorial altar for five firefighters who died in a helicopter crash last week on their return to the base at Gangwon Fire Headquarters after participating in search operations for missing bodies from the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16. Chung comforted the emotional officers in uniform saying he will look into the matter before trudging out of the funeral hall. The dismal working conditions for Korean firefighters are nothing new. Calls for improvement have been repeatedly made every time a valuable life has been lost while on duty.
Korean firefighters work in far poorer conditions than their peers not only in other countries, but also among domestic officials on public payroll. There were about 39,500 people serving in fire departments across the nation as of 2013. A firefighter is responsible for 1,300 lives, compared with 700 to 900 in the United States and Japan. Human resources differ significantly by region. A firefighter in populated places like urban districts in Gyeonggi Province is accountable for 2,000 residents. A fire station in Gangwon must cover jurisdictions much larger in area than those in Seoul.
Under fire department regulations, each firefighter must be equipped with two pairs of fire protection uniforms, shoes, gloves and masks. But few stations have adequate equipment. Many cannot even replace old gear. Many fire trucks are past their age limit: 37 percent in Chungcheong, 32 percent in Gangwon, and 28 percent in South Jeolla. In principle, firefighters should rest for two days after working a full 24 hours, but few stations can enjoy the luxury due to a shortage of staff.
The prime minister could not have given more assurance to the firefighters on the spot because he would have to consider budgeting and administrative changes before making any promises. But these men are risking their lives to save others. They should at least be provided with necessary protective gear and a less-rigorous shift schedule.
The central and local governments must seek ways to ease the differences in equipment, staff and expenses among municipal firefighters. They are first to rush to emergency scenes and fight with dangers every time. They deserve respect and compensation.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 22, Page 30