Enforcing public safety awareness

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Enforcing public safety awareness

Few paid attention to the 30 inches of snow atop a gymnasium at the Mauna Ocean Resort in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, in February 2014. Over 500 professors, students and their supervisors inside the gym for a for a school welcoming event did not detect any danger from the perfectly romantic setting. But the snow proved deadly as the roof collapsed over their heads, killing 10 and injuring more than 100.

In October of the same year, a ventilation grate collapsed under the weight of spectators watching an outdoor concert at Pangyo Techno Valley in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, killing 16 and critically injuring 11. Smoke ventilators and water sprinklers were broken and exits at the sauna were blocked in the multistory fitness center fire that caused 29 deaths in November in Jecheon, North Chungcheong. Nobody took notice or reported any abnormalities before the incident.

A major accident is only one step removed from a minor one. According to Heinrich’s Law, “for every accident that causes a major injury in a workplace, there are 29 accidents that cause minor injuries and 300 accidents that cause no injuries.” It would be great if there was someone heroic like the Dutch boy who discovered a leak in a dike and plugged it with his finger to prevent a flood. But oftentimes, we learn lessons only after an accident has caused casualties and made the news. We cannot answer the wailing families asking what changed after the Sewol ferry sank.

For the Gyeongju roof collapse, the building’s structure was blamed. In the Jecheon blaze, the builder, the structures, illegal parking and various other factors are being blamed. We just hope that the government measures this time won’t be the same regulatory action or punishment.

Every accident creates an opportunity to toughen regulations. To stop the vicious cycle, we can turn to the wise King Sejong. The king received civilian petitions about grain merchants lying when reporting the weight of their goods. The royal court called for strong actions to be taken against the merchants. But the king had another idea. He proposed supplying many scales. Once the monopoly on scales was broken, merchants were no longer able to cheat their customers. King Sejong believed that crime could better be resolved through civilian discipline instead of state punishment.

King Sejong paved the way for a modern state. His inventions of hangul, the sun dial, music scores, printing apparatus, astronomical instrument and the rain gauge all established measurements and other standards. He already understood that the state’s role was to play the referee instead of regulator.

The same principle should apply to the state’s basic duty of safeguarding public properties and lives. When regulations and punishments are toughened, accidents may lessen but can stoke administrative costs and the danger of turning into a police state.

To solve the dilemma in the cost of upholding justice, the state should set the guidelines and share the duty of disciplinary supervision and prevention with the civilian society.

To have “heroic” eyes everywhere, two things must become common. Safety awareness training should become more common and a the safety system should be institutionalized. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said social learning can bring about more dynamic improvement in living standards than effective distribution. A learning society can maximize individual potential and stimulate the knowledge economy as well as ensure safety. Before increasing the number of firefighters, the government must develop and supply public safety programs.

We cannot go on grieving and lamenting about safety and poor public awareness. The real fault lies not in our attitude, but in the system. The functional administrative system must shift to become more field-oriented. The firefighters went into the fire at Jecheon without a blueprint of the building. This is because regulations regarding buildings and firefighting differ. Government officials in charge of hygiene, parking, and city repair would have examined the building in different ways. Just as people need a personal doctor, buildings require a doctor.

Of the 1.15 million firefighters in the United States, about 800,000 are volunteers with 95 percent based in their community. They are like family doctors who know every part of their community. They routinely make rounds of supervision and work with career firefighters on call. In a world that is turning more and more complicated and becoming multi-functional, there must not be barriers in administrative functions.

Civilians should be trained to become defenders of their communities. Dutch philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said architecture is the only art form that cannot allow any tragedy. Regardless of aesthetic pursuit, architectural engineering must be based in modern reason as it directly involves public safety.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 6, Page 25

*The author, an architect, is an adjunct professor of architectural engineering at Hanyang University.

Hahm In-sun
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