CIVILIAN fire station in Xidu community in Fengxian District has become the first non-military firefighting force in Shanghai to win the prestigious National 119 Fire Service Award, but station Vice Captain Li Xiaohang said it’s only a small step in a long-overdue overhaul of first responders.
The Xidu station was established by government of Fengxian’s Nanqiao Town as part of efforts to groom civilian firefighting teams to replace armed forces that currently provide firefighting services.New regulations came into effect in November 1, encouraging the establishment of more civilian fire departments in densely populated areas. They are meant to address serious problems in the existing system. For one, military-based firefighting is beset by churn, as young soldiers complete their two-year stints and leave the army and the fire brigades. Shanghai has too few firefighters, who are low-paid and subject to high death rates.
Still, Li feels pride in what he hopes will be a new beginning.
“Since our station was established in 2009, we have responded to more than 700 emergencies with 13 firefighters, five drivers and four managerial and support staff,” the 24-year-old told Shanghai Daily. “And we haven’t lost a single member of our team on duty.”
In Shanghai, there are only 7,000 firefighting soldiers.
“It is obviously insufficient for over 23 million residents in the city,” said Gu Jinlong, deputy director of the Shanghai Fire Bureau. “Developed countries usually have more than 10 firemen per 10,000 residents.”
That would mean that Shanghai is 16,000 firefighters short.
“We have only 127 fire stations in the city now, but we plan to expand that to at least 200 by 2040, each with 40 to 50 firefighters, so that we can arrive at any fire within 5 minutes,” he added.
Because the military-based fire services in China rely on young recruits who don’t stay very long, inexperience partly explains a high death rate among firefighters, Gu said.
The average age of firefighters who have died on duty in China since 2006 was 24, with the youngest only 18 years old, according to People’s Police, a magazine published by the Ministry of Public Security.
By comparison, only five of the 25 career firefighters killed in the US last year were younger than 30, the magazine reported.
This year alone in Shanghai, four firefighters aged between 18 and 23 died on duty. Experts said two who perished while fighting a 13th-floor apartment blaze might have lived if they had been trained in backdraft — an explosive force caused by rapid reintroduction of oxygen to a fire in an oxygen-depleted environment.
Call for overhaul
The deaths triggered public calls for an overhaul to create a more professional, career-oriented fire service.
To that end, Shanghai has been encouraging its local governments and larger companies to build up dedicated firefighting units and volunteer backup teams.
The city fire department employs about 2,000 contracted firefighters, who are mainly local residents. The monthly salary of 2,000 yuan (US$325) is hardly attractive for a dangerous job. The result has been high turnover and persistent inexperience.
China could take a cue from developed countries, where firefighting is considered a respected profession and offers long-term careers.
The National Fire Protection Association, a US trade organization that sets minimum standards for firefighting duties and equipment, estimated that there were approximately 1.13 million firefighters in the US in 2012. Of that total number, about 31 percent were career firefighters and the rest were volunteers.
Most US states require all firefighters to complete a certification program at a fire academy.
The annual mean wage for career firefighters in New Jersey was US$75,130 last year, the top-paying state, according to the US Department of Labor.
In Shanghai, there are about 70 civilian fire stations, in addition to around 120 enterprises that also build up firefighting teams. Some 1,000 volunteer firefighters also are on call should fires break out in their communities.
Li might be regarded as the face of the future. He graduated from vocational school in his home city, Xi’an in the northwestern province of Shaanxi.
“I came to Shanghai to look for work, but my education background was poor,” he said. “A friend told me that firefighters were being recruited and no education was required, so I applied and was hired.”
One month’s training
He received one month’s training before being dispatched to the fire station in Xidu, a community of 30 square kilometers in Nanqiao Town.
The station was new, built with an initial investment of 35 million yuan from the town government. That included 25 million yuan for three fire trucks and related equipment, 300,000 yuan for rent and a dormitory, and 700,000 yuan for staff salaries and insurance. The government provides an ongoing allocation of 1 million yuan a year for the station.
Li said the job hasn’t proven as dangerous as he expected. The team gets training in tackling various kinds of blazes, rescuing people, undertakes fire safety inspections and promotes fire prevention programs.
Still, turnover is high. Li said all the members of the original team at his station have left. The average age of the 13 current firemen is about 20.
“We earn only 2,500 yuan a month, and life is really dull here most days,” said Li, who was promoted to team vice captain in May. “Some of them have returned to their hometowns; others wanted a career change. I understand their choices, but I like this job. Saving people and their property is different from making clothes or delivering parcels. It gives me a sense of achievement, honor and respect.”
Sun Hanjun, director of the fire station, has applied for more financial support from the local government and expanded the facility to make firefighters more comfortable during their shifts. Wi-Fi has been installed. He said he wants to create an environment that encourages team members to stay. A system has been set up to enable firefighters to get qualification certificates that lead to promotions.
For now, Li isn’t thinking too much about his long-term future.
“I plan to get married soon,” he said. “As for my life after I turn 30, well, who knows.”