Firefighting is a local matter

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Firefighting is a local matter


Lim Seung-bin

The recent loss of firefighters is heartbreaking. They are now demanding better benefits and a different work status, and they want to report directly to the central government instead of municipal heads. But any change in the administration of a public organization must be in line with the general principles and plans of the government. The purpose of reforms in administrative management, behavior and practice should be to better serve the people and work toward national progress. The duties and roles of central and local governments are divided depending upon which can better respond to the public’s needs in terms of expertise, proximity and frequency.

The duties are then further divided among the central, local and municipal governments.

Now let’s look at the organization of our fire service. Firefighters have been separately run by the central and local governments since 1970. In 1992, the service came under the jurisdiction of administrative districts. Each district organized the firefighters’ headquarters that ran fire stations. The current organization works well for several reasons.

Firefighters are mostly needed in villages, towns and cities. The municipal-level administration of fire services is appropriate because it does not require high-level education. Municipal-level fire services are used in the United States and Japan and some even fall under district office jurisdiction.

Fire services must be customized for the environmental and residential needs of each region. The number of firefighters in each area is decided based on the population and size of an administrative district. For more effective fire services, jurisdictions can be expanded to nearby cities, districts and towns. Fire stations could also be established in danger-prone areas such as petrochemical and industrial parks as well as highly populated residential and cultural or tourism complexes. Fire and emergency calls are frequent and they must be responded to within five to 10 minutes. For this reason alone, fire services should remain under local jurisdictions.

Prevention is also an important part of a firefighter’s role. But that cannot happen without close cooperation with local governments. Fire staff must routinely check the safety standards of buildings and large facilities, and local governments are responsible for licensing those businesses and builders.

A firefighter’s line of work better fits the description of a local public servant. Yet they are often required to work outside their role - picking up stray animals, opening closed doors or helping out at local events.

Some say that the separation of fire control and emergency response services in the budgets of local governments hinders the work of firefighters, and they demand uniform management.

Firefighters receive lower pay than other civil servants since their budget was calculated on total turnover since 2007. The standards of equipment also differ according to the budgets of local governments. Extra allowances for fire services could be revived to solve the budget problem.

In our administrative situation, fire services will work best if they remain within local jurisdictions. But to improve work conditions and service quality, a lot more needs to be done. Administrative reorganization cannot be pursued only on strict principles and procedures alone. It needs political support. The government should try to improve firefighters’ working conditions and status through compromise while persuading politicians to show their support.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a professor of the public administration department at Myongji University.

BY Lim Seung-bin

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