FIRE AT Sinchon Severance Hospital occurred at 7:57 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2018, on the third floor food court. More than 300 people evacuated the building as smoke spread from the second floor to the fifth floor. The fire department arrived quickly, and only around 2 hours since the first sparks caused the fire, the firefighters declared that the fire had been put out. Although eight people inhaled smoke and were moved to adjacent hospital buildings, no one was seriously hurt. However, this fire is not representative of the other fires that swept the country during winter. Other fires in Jaecheon, Jongno, and Miryang were not prepared for such disasters and have had a massive death toll.
The large fires of Korea
Unlike Severance Hospital, rural areas were not as fortunate. On Dec. 21, 2017, a fire in Jaecheon occurred in the first-floor parking lot of a sports complex during the installation of thermal lines. The fire consumed the building, trapping 20 women in the second-floor sauna. The women searched for a way out but were unable to open the main entrance door, and all 20 women ended up dying to the toxic gases. At the end of the day, 29 lives were lost.
The Jaecheon fire caused nationwide grief as the victims were identified. Among the tragedies were a grandmother, mother, and daughter who died together in the complex. As citizens lambasted the status of Korea’s fire safety, the Blue House pledged to place greater effort into preventing fires and mitigating their damage.
Major fires, however, did not end with Jaecheon. On Jan. 20, 2018, an arsonist burnt down a motel in Jongno, killing six. Then, six days later, a fire broke out in Miryang Sejong Hospital. As the first-floor nurse’s dressing room caught fire, a quick evacuation was attempted. However, most of the patients inside the hospital were elderly. Unable to move by themselves, they were helpless against the flames and smoke. As of Feb. 22, 2018, 50 people were killed and 142 were wounded due to the fire.
With the fires in Jaecheon, Jongno, Miryang and now Sinchon, many became seriously concerned about their personal safety from fires. Many also felt that this winter had exceptionally frequent fire tragedies, and rightfully so. In fact, according to data from the National Fire Agency (NFA), there have been a total of 167 deaths from December 2017 to January 2018. During that same two-month period between 2014 and 2017, fire deaths were averaged at 68. Reasonably concerned, people wanted answers as to why so many people died this winter. Some blame went to the government as the accidents became politicized, but most of the blame was directed towards those on the spot: the firefighters.
Local firefighters under fire
Due to the loss of so many lives, many were quick to blame firefighters for their lack of ability to combat fires effectively. Some even went on to label the firefighters as inept and cowardly. These offensive remarks disparaged firefighters who put their lives at risk to protect civilians. However, a deeper analysis proves that it was the poor working conditions of the firefighters that prevented them from saving more lives.
Lack of manpower
A lack of manpower is the obvious reason why the fires devastated so many lives. The 13 personnel that arrived during the “rescue golden time” of the Jaecheon fire are few compared to the fire near Hongik University, where 40 personnel responded in less than 3 minutes on Jan. 3, 2018. This comparison shows the harsh reality of firefighting in South Korea; the more rural areas do not get enough support for their firefighters. This is because 99% of all firefighting public servants are not employed on the federal level but are locally employed. Due to this fact, the number of firefighters per person varies widely depending on the region and budget. According to the NFA, Seoul, the most prosperous region in Korea, employs 94% of the legally recommended number of firefighters. However, the national level is around 63%, since the less financially backed cities and provinces are far below the recommended level. Jaecheon is no exception, reaching only 49% of the recommended number. Due to the lack of manpower, proper prevention of the Jaecheon fire was impossible. Fire patrol cars were available to fine and move illegally parked cars, but Jaecheon was too large a city for the personnel-lacking fire department to regularly check up on.
In addition, the poor leadership was in part due to the lack of personnel. For fire accidents, there are supposed to be two leaders, one in charge of putting out the fire, and the other in charge of the safety of the firefighters. However, due to the lack of manpower, a single man had to take responsibility for both roles in the Jaecheon fire, which caused inefficacy and late decision making on his part. Also, it is possible that the firefighters were already in a physically exhausted state before the fire. According to one firefighter in an interview with Huffingtonpost Korea in 2014, rural firefighters were often subjected to longer work hours than recommended to fill up the lack of manpower, making it difficult for them to take vacations as that meant heavier workloads for their co-workers.
In an interview with the The Yonsei Annals, Gwangju City Buk-gu Fire Department fire inspector Nam Tae-sik said the main problem for the firefighters was the lack of manpower. “What’s most important in the role of firefighters in dealing with a fire is the quick input from the first respondents. Miryang Fire had only 13 personnel respond while the Severance Hospital had hundreds. It is concerning that this is the reality for rural fire departments.” Nam also commented that since the rural areas have longer distances between fire departments, backup from other regions often arrives too late.
Lack of proper equipment
A lack of proper equipment due to low funding is another issue that firefighters face. For Jaecheon, a city with almost 140,000 people, only one ladder truck was available in the sole fire department. Also, the respondents did not have access to a radio frequency because the situation room was using it. The lack of proper equipment and the aging of existing equipment is not an exclusive phenomenon to Jaecheon, however. On a national average, one in five fire engines is running beyond its expected use period. Also, according to the same interviews conducted by the HuffingtonPost Korea, rural firefighters said they resorted to spending their own money to buy lanterns, fireproof gloves, and even bottled water. A firefighter from Jeonbuk province stated that he only has two fireproof suits that were made to last up to three years, but has had them for 3 and 10 years, respectively. Another firefighter from Kangwon province had to use gloves that had holes in them during the winter.
Lack of immunity and authority
A lack of immunity and authority is the last and a sometimes overlooked issue for firefighters. In the case of Jaecheon, firefighters were careful not to hit any illegally parked cars, for they could be subject to a lawsuit and must pay for the damages. Similarly, as the firefighters are hurt during work, they must themselves prove that their work was what caused the injuries. Thus, the firefighters become less bold in making decisions since they may be subjected to large fines and legal fees. Also, fire departments sometimes face the local’s complaints about their work.
The dire situation of the firefighters reveals a bigger problem of Korean society: Koreans are negligent of safety to save costs and time. Although tragedies such as the Sewol Ferry Accident seemed to place the public’s focus on the importance of safety, the analysis into the recent fires reveals that Korea has a long way to go. The lack of funding and immunity for firefighters highlight the public’s and their representatives’ lack of concern for safety.
The responsibility, of course, does not just rest on the firefighters but it is upon us as well. The winter fires show the importance of the citizen’s role in preventing tragedies. During winter, Koreans’ use of heating equipment and dry weather often lead to fires. Thus, it is important for citizens to be very careful about possible fires during the winter, following safety procedures to reduce the risk. Sadly, statistics show that this is not the case. According to NFA, more than half of the fires that occur during winter are from a “lack of caution.” Close inspection into the large fires points the blame on the negligence of safety.
Lack of prevention measures
The three fires have one thing in common: they all lack proper prevention measures for fires. Sprinklers are vital for early fire suppression. However, all three places did not have working sprinklers. For the Jaecheon Sports Complex, a total of 356 sprinkers were installed throughout the building, which could have put out the initial fire. The owner, however, closed off the valves because the pumps were not working properly. On the other hand, there were no sprinkler systems set in Jongno and Miryang. Plus, all three places did not have properly working firewalls that delay the spread of fires. These situations can be contrasted with the Severance Hospital Fire, where the sprinklers automatically suppressed the early flames and the firewalls blocked the smoke and flames from spreading too far. Since most died to the toxic fumes instead of being burnt, fire prevention measures like sprinklers and firewalls could have significantly reduced the numbers of the victims.
Ignorance of safety laws
The lack of concern for safety and construction laws is an example of the safety insensitivity that intensified the tragedies. Both Jaecheon and Miryang illegally remodeled their buildings. The Jaecheon Complex had originally been registered as a seven-story building but the eighth and ninth floors were illegally expanded. Also, the fire exit pathway sauna on the second floor had been remodeled into storage space and was locked. However, the Jaecheon Sports Complex did not have proper fire prevention inspection from the fire department. Instead, the previous owner of the building had his son inspect the building’s safety status. The current owner had an outside company inspect the building but mostly ignored the warnings. However, these acts are not criminal. Prior to 2012, the fire departments and their qualified officials were responsible for checking up on the safety inspections. The government decided to change fire prevention regulations in 2012 and placed the responsibility on the owners. Thus, part of the blame rests with the government.
The Miryang Hospital also violated safety regulations when it remodeled a tenth of its total surface area to increase the number of hospital wards and beds in each room. Although the city had known about the illegal acts and fined the hospital, the hospital simply paid the fines and continued to expand the hospital. The hospital continued to pay fines and operate in its illegal state for six years. Additionally, the hospital did not meet the legal requirement for the number of doctors and nurses necessary for the number of patients. The hospital had a third of the minimum number of doctors and only a tenth of the necessary number of nurses (the percentage goes up to a third if the nursing assistants are added, but still there is a significant lack of personnel). In fact, Miryang City Public Health Center fined the hospital for the lack of personnel in 2014. The hospital paid the fine but did not take any action regarding the accusation. Consequently, there were not enough workers to evacuate the elderly patients. In fact, one doctor died while repeatedly carrying the patients outside. The hospital did not abide by the laws, causing lives to be lost needlessly.
Changes and limitations
To prevent further tragedies from fires, we must change the appalling situation for firefighters. President Moon Jae-in stressed the importance of public safety and promised to improve conditions for the firefighters during his 2016 presidential campaign. The Blue House aims to provide the adequate manpower, equipment, and mental health care to the public servants. Regarding the lack of personnel and equipment, the nation plans to change the employer of firefighters from local to federal in 2019. If implemented correctly, the disparity between the regions can be narrowed. However, the Blue House must take caution in centralizing the power back to the federal level, since that is the opposite of another campaign promise, the decentralization of power. Thus, the administration must cooperate with municipality leaders to provide the funding required but not take away local leadership. Still, Nam expressed concern for the effectiveness of the action. “Although the shift of employment will centralize and potentially speed up rescue efforts, it isn’t the central issue. Quick response from the fire departments is possible without changing the system. The main problem is that there simply isn’t enough funding from the municipality leaders to increase the number of firefighters. The government’s current proposal does not cover this issue. There must be legislative action to make sure that financial support is getting where it needs to go.” As Nam commented, money is the problem. The Blue House must tackle this issue so that firefighters get sufficient funding.
There is also controversy about the chief of the Jaecheon Fire Department being indicted by the prosecutor’s office. In an interview with CBS No Cut News, 119 Firefighter Safety and Welfare Agencyleader Choi In-chang commented that “if the chief is found guilty, that will mean that all responsibility rests on the chiefs. This will make firefighters reluctant in their rescue efforts.” Nam also stated that “most firefighters never try to respond idly to fires. They try to place their best efforts, but the problem is that there are structural limitations” (like the lack of manpower). As Choi and Nam commented, many firefighters felt wronged by the news as they believed that the Jaecheon fire could have been handled effectively if the firefighters had proper manpower and equipment.
In addition, our negligence of safety must change, and that will only happen if there exists enough punishment for not abiding the laws. It is apparent that fire prevention laws must be revised and strengthened. The recent revision of the basic fire prevention laws has made dedicated areas for fire engines necessary for apartments, and more changes are to be made on the legislative level. However, actual enforcement of the laws is more important. For example, the Miryang Hospital already had laws that aimed to prevent illegal remodeling. Yet the profit they made was greater than the fines, so they continued to violate such laws. The Blue House has announced that it will create a special task force for fire safety and that it will inspect 290,000 multi-use facilities. Hopefully, these actions will help enforce current safety laws and punish those who violate them.
Lastly, there is also a responsibility on workers and even ordinary citizens. The Severance Hospital fire did not have any serious casualties for the workers, as they had routinely participated in evacuation training with the Seodaemun-gu Fire Department. Knowing where the exits were, the health workers quickly evacuated the patients. Under their leadership, the patients moved quickly and orderly. Although the disaster in Miryang was due to multiple factors, the unpreparedness of the workers played a part in the many losses. For our safety, workers must be prepared for such a fire and citizens must be ready to follow their lead.
According to Albamon, a large Korean internet platform for part-time jobs, firefighters ranked first in the profession that “has importance but is being undervalued” at 60.2%. This statistic shows the reality of our safety insensitivity for fires. The fires in Jaecheon, Jongno, and Miryang exposed the dire situation that firefighters are in and has shown that ordinary citizens hold responsibility for the disasters. When firefighters are safe and have the manpower and equipment to carry out their duties, and we become mindful of our safety so that fire prevention laws are respected and enforced, we will be safe from the fires.
Box 1: Mental health issues for firefighters
The poor working conditions, traumatic experiences, and the lack of rights all culminate in causing the firefighters to suffer from mental health issues. In 2016, according to National Assembly Member Park Nam-chun, 6.3% of firefighters suffered from PTSD and 10.8% suffered from depression (the national average is 0.6% and 2.4%, respectively). Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Safety and Security disclosed that from 2010 to 2015, 33 firefighters died during work while 35 committed suicide. However, no administrative action is in place to protect the mental health of firefighters. To tackle the mental health problem, the Moon administration plans to open a Mental Healthcare Center (Trauma Center) and a special hospital for firefighters, but details on the plan have yet to be released.