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Friday, October 21, 2011

Volunteer Firefighters Died Closing Floodgates


An example of a floodgate in Miyagi-ken, Japan.
Back on March 11, 2011, a total of 253 volunteer firefighters died when an earthquake-spawned tsunami devastated three prefectures along the northeast coast of Japan. But wasn’t known until recently, was that of those dead firefighters, at least 72 were in charge of closing floodgates or seawall gates in coastal areas, it has been learned.
What is ironic, is that these deaths occurred at the same time calls for a greater number of remote-operated floodgates were being requested, owing to the fact that the firefighters actually have to head to the coastal areas to close gates immediately after an earthquake – an obviously dangerous part of the job.
Despite the large number of deaths, government officials have only did they will consider revising the floodgate operations – not outright saying they will.
There are about 1,450 floodgates in Iwate-ken (Iwate Prefecture), Miyagi-ken (Miyagi Prefecture) and Fukushima-ken (Fukushima Prefecture), including some to prevent the inflow of seawater into rivers and seawall gates that will allow people to pass through.
According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 119 volunteer firefighters died or went missing in Iwate-ken, 107 in Miyagi-ken and 27 in Fukushima-ken.
Of these, 59 and 13 were in charge of closing gates in Iwate-ken and Miyagi-ken, respectively, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey of the municipalities and firefighting agencies concerned.
Within six municipalities in Fukushima-ken, the gate closing was a job sub-contracted to private companies and citizen groups. A local resident of Namiemachi in the prefecture died after he went out to close a floodgate. But firefighters were responsible for other floodgate closures.
According to the municipalities concerned and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, volunteer firefighters were also swept away while guiding the evacuation of residents or while in transit after finishing gate-closing operations. However, the agency says more firefighters were lost at these times than while closing gates.
There are about 600 floodgates and seawall gates under the administration of the Iwate-ken government, however only 33 can be remotely operated. But some volunteer firefighters still had to go to and close the floodgates after the earthquake damaged the power to them.
Part of the problem is that there were delays i closing the gates owing to the fact that some local residents were still attempting to cross through the gates after having turned back to fetch personal items.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi-ken, four volunteer firefighters were trying to close the floodgates but fled when it became obvious they were too late. Three of them died (or are presumed missing – and after this length of time... they are dead).
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, volunteer firefighters are classified as irregular local government officials, and many have regular jobs. Their average annual allowance was a mere ¥25,475 (~Cdn/US $337.00) as of 2008.
There were slightly more than 880,000 volunteer firefighters in 2010, a drop of 67,000 from 2000.
According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, there were 25,463 floodgates and seawall gates at least two meters wide at seaports and elsewhere across the country as of March last year. Of these, just 742 units, or about three percent, could be remotely controlled, the ministry said.
The ministry will ask each prefecture to increase the number of remotely controlled floodgates and seawall gates while inspecting how the gates have been used and administered. Based on its findings, the ministry will decide on the order in which gates should be closed after an earthquake, and study a plan to keep shut at ordinary times gates that do not need to remain open.
Another factor that increased the death toll among volunteer firefighters was the fact that many did not possess wireless equipment (radios or walkie-talkies), the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said, and were unable to get any updates on the height of the approaching tsunami.
By Andrew Joseph

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