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[Feature] Firefighters hope for change

Long neglected and facing overwork and lack of recognition, firefighters seek better conditions

From natural disasters or ducklings trying to cross an expressway to locked doors at home, firefighters are being called to handle just about every “emergency” one can imagine.

These everyday heroes, however, have long been among the groups most neglected by policymakers in South Korea.

Career firefighters, despite facing life-threatening dangers in the line of duty, have suffered a chronic shortage of manpower, budget and, perhaps most importantly, a collective sense of being valued.

But finally, a change may be coming. 

Firefighters try to put out a fire in a building in central Seoul. (Yonhap)
Firefighters try to put out a fire in a building in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in, who during his election campaign vowed to empower and improve working conditions of them, is seeking to establish an independent agency for the national and provincial fire service. It is currently under the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

Simultaneously, the new administration is seeking to hire 1,500 new firefighters this year, along with policemen, teachers and social workers. 

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

“It is heartening,” a firefighter stationed in Seoul told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity. “We’re hoping for a greater role and greater autonomy,” he added.

Both plans require parliamentary approval, as they are included in the broader reorganization of the government and a project for 15,000 new jobs envisioned to be bankrolled by a supplementary budget.

The public, as well as many parliamentarians, appear to be in support of better treatment, at least, of the country’s firefighters.

A legislative bill, currently pending at the National Assembly, is also brightening the mood in firehouses.

Billed by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers as “a law that would wipe away the tears of firefighters,” the proposal intends to take in all firefighters as central government employees, such that any spending on them, including salaries and safety gear purchases, comes from central fiscal coffers, not local coffers that vary greatly.

That firefighters are not hired by the state itself is linked to many difficulties they are facing now, according to Kong Ha-sung, professor of the Department of Fire Safety at Kyungil University.

“Even if the Ministry (of Public Safety and Security) sets the guideline for new recruits, that doesn’t materialize in cash-short cities and provinces because it is ultimately the rural authorities that pay their salaries,” he explained.

“Changing the employment status of firemen is not about their working conditions. It is about ensuring the country’s fire service is equal and (up to standards) across the country,” he stressed.

As of December last year, South Korea, a country of 51 million, had 43,510 firefighters. Of them just about 1 percent were employed by the central government.

The data also reveals that South Korea has a far lower firefighter-to-citizen ratio than comparable countries: One full-time firefighter is in charge of the safety of some 1,200 citizens here, compared to 1,075 in the United States and 820 in Japan.

The fatality rate, according to data from 2011, is much higher for South Korean firefighters as well, with 1.85 deaths per 10,000 on duty, while the figures for US and Japan stood at 1.01 and 0.7, respectively.

In some areas where the rural government’s fiscal condition is in bad shape, firefighters are replacing worn-out fire-proof gloves and boots with privately purchased gear, an online post purportedly by a firefighter’s wife claimed in 2014.

But alleviating the chronic manpower and budget shortages are only basic tasks. There is more that needs to be done to better protect them, critics have pointed out.

The lack of medical support to address work-related injuries and symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder, is a crucial but still neglected issue, they said.

According to a survey released by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 43.2 percent of 8,256 firefighters stationed nationwide said they have sleep disorders. Some 25 percent complained of hearing difficulties, while 19.4 percent said they had experienced depression and anxiety disorders.

Professor Kong also backed these findings.

“Individual firefighters’ medical data and history are to be reported to superiors. That discourages many firefighters from seeking professional help (for fear of being excluded from field work),” he stressed.

By Bak Se-hwan (sh@heraldcorp.com)

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