The special firefighters are putting out embers.
/Photo courtesy of EastCoastal Fire Center of Gangwon Province
2,509 firefighters were injured or died on duty between 2014 and 2018. The average life expectancy of firefighters is 69 years, the lowest among civil servants, and is 12 years shorter than the average life expectancy of Koreans. However, firefighters who are dedicated to our safety do not receive adequate treatment and welfare. This was because the treatment of firefighters and the firefighting service were different depending on the financial condition of cities and provinces. The claim to improve this problem had been continued for a long time, but it was not easy to be solved. However, in 2019, there was a disaster that became a turning point in the improvement of conditions for firefighters.
Problems of firefighting-related jobs revealed by 2019 Gangwon forest fire
On April 4th, 2019, a large forest fire broke out in Goseong, Gangwon-do, and spread to the cities of Sokcho, Gangneung, and Inje. The cause of the fire is believed to be a telephone pole on the side of the road in Goseong. 3,251 firefighters and 872 fire trucks rushed out from fire departments across the country. It was the largest scale of a single fire ever. Although the government responded swiftly at that time, two people died, and 10 were injured because of the fire. In addition, the forest fire in Gangwon-do burned 1,757 hectares of forest.
During the extinguishment of the forest fire in Gangwon-do, people who worked harder than anyone else in the front line were special firefighters. The special firefighter is a professional workforce belonging to the Korea Forest Service deployed to rugged mountainous areas that are difficult to reach by helicopters. They tried to extinguish the forest fire only with shovels and iron rakes, going around the site all night long. Surprisingly, these special firefighters were temporary employees contracted just for 10 months and were paid only 100 thousand won a day. It was often the case that proper on-site input could not be made smoothly in a disaster situation due to the contract problems with firefighters. For example, in 2018, 10 special firefighters were unable to go to extinguish the forest fire in Bunseongsan Mountain, Gimhae, because their short-term contracts expired. The problem of special firefighters being temporary workers became an issue thanks to the 2019 Gangwon forest fire.
On April 5th, 2019, when everyone was trying to extinguish the forest fire, a petition was posted on the Cheongwadae national petition website under the heading, “Switch firefighters to national public officials.” Over 200 thousand people agreed in only three days since the petition was posted, which reached the government response standard. The demand for the change of fire officials to national public officials continued for a long time, but it was too difficult to improve. However, it received the most attention due to the 2019 Gangwon forest fire and could be solved at last.
Improvement of problems of firefighting-related jobs
The government announced belatedly that converting special firefighters to full-time jobs would start in 2020. Currently, the number of special firefighters increased from 300 to 435, and 160 were converted to permanent employees. The government is planning to phase in changing the rest of the 275 into permanent employees. Furthermore, the Korea Forest Service will select 750 tree surgeons and 800 forest care patrol people, who handle urgent matters related to forest damage and civil complaints in forests, this year.
Also, 52,516 firefighters who had been divided as national and local public officials were transferred to national positions from April 1st, 2020. By converting firefighters to national positions, the difference in fire extinguishing and rescue capabilities depending on the financial situation of local governments is reduced. Therefore, it is possible to respond more quickly to a disastrous situation. This enables the dispatching of firefighters close to the site regardless of the boundaries of cities and provinces. It has been around 47 years since the fire officials were divided into national and local public officials when the Local Public Officials Act was enacted in February 1973. Koo Da-som, a sophomore, said, “It was very regrettable that firefighters who were dispatched to risky emergency situations were temporary employees. I feel sorry for not recognizing these problems earlier. It is a good thing that these problems are solved now. In addition, I think that the people who supported this improvement with the national petition are also respectable.”
On May 1st, 2020, a fire broke out in a house in Goseong, Gangwon-do, and moved to a nearby mountain, causing a forest fire. The fire is assumed to have started in a domestic firewood boiler. Fire departments all over the country quickly mobilized 39 helicopters and 300 fire engines. This forest fire was similar to last year’s in many ways, including the time of occurrence around 8 P.M., and the rapid spread of forest fires in the “Yangganjipung,” which is a kind of strong local wind. However, there was less damage compared to last year. 85 hectares of forest and six buildings were lost, but there were no casualties. In addition, the number of people who had to be evacuated was only 2,200 this year compared to 4,085 last year. The reason for the minimization of forest fire damage was that local governments’ jurisdiction over firefighting disappeared due to the fire officials’ transition to national public officials. This enabled the quick mobilization of fire services across the country at the discretion of the chief of National Fire Agency (NFA). In the past, firefighters and equipment had to be reordered in each region after an NFA instruction.
President Moon Jae-in remarked that the damaged area was smaller compared to forest fires that occurred in the same area at similar times, and there was no injury to humans thanks to the development of a forest fire response system by taking lessons from the 2019 Gangwon forest fire. According to him, firefighters were able to be dispatched quickly because they became national public officials, and the expertise of the firefighting workforce increased by converting special firefighters into full-time jobs.
After the fire in Gangwon, we moved closer to improved condition of firefighters. Nevertheless, the problems regarding firefighters have not completely disappeared. Even recently, a firefighter in Incheon committed suicide on May 27th. Park Ye-jin, the sophomore of Dankook University, said, “The shift of fire officials to national public officials, which was motivated by the forest fires in Gangwon-do, was finally executed thanks to the constant interest of the public. However, it is only a starting point of the improvement of conditions for firefighters since incidents such as suicide of firefighters have not been eliminated completely. The government should seek a solution to improve the mental health of firefighters suffering from lack of sleep and stress and we must also constantly pay attention to it.”
Eom Hye-rin firstname.lastname@example.org
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