Reinforce Foundation for Local Disaster Response Amid Fewer Volunteer Firefighters

The downward trend in the number of volunteer fire corps members, who support local disaster prevention and response, has shown no sign of stopping. To cope with major disasters that have occurred frequently, it is necessary to accelerate efforts to develop an environment that will help secure human resources.

In a similar manner to fire stations, volunteer fire corps are operated by municipal governments, and all municipalities have such corps.

Members of volunteer fire corps work regular jobs and receive training on their days off and other occasions as non-regular, specially tasked local government employees. When there are fires or other disasters, they are called out to engage in firefighting and rescue activities. In the event of an emergency, they are also tasked with guiding residents to evacuate.

The initial response is important for firefighting and rescue activities. Members of volunteer fire corps, who are familiar with local conditions, play a significant role until fire station personnel and rescue workers from other districts arrive.

When torrential rain hit western Japan in 2018, more than 100,000 volunteer firefighters engaged in activities such as searching for missing people in Hiroshima, Okayama and Ehime prefectures.

The number of volunteer fire corps members totaled 2 million nationwide in the 1950s, but fell below 1 million in the 1990s. It has now dropped to about 820,000.

Previously, many self-employed business operators were volunteer firefighters, but currently the majority of the members are company employees. It is said that there are some cases in which their families are opposed to them being in the volunteer fire corps.

In a way, it is unavoidable that volunteer fire corps have been affected by the declining birthrate, the aging of society and the weakening of ties among people in their local communities. However, if the number of volunteer firefighters continues to fall and the graying of this group progresses, local communities’ capability to respond to disasters will inevitably decline.

To encourage people to join volunteer fire corps, it is important to improve the working conditions of members so that they match the risk of their duties.

The central government has estimated pay for general volunteer firefighters at ¥36,500 a year and an allowance of ¥7,000 per service, and included funding for it in national taxes allocated to local governments. In many cases, however, the amount of pay stipulated by municipal ordinances is below such estimates due to fiscal factors and other reasons.

In some cases, volunteer fire corps, rather than individual members, receive compensation and use the money to hold social gatherings or for other purposes. Some young members may feel uncomfortable with using the money in this way, viewing it as an old practice.

A panel of experts at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency has begun considering measures to improve the working conditions of volunteer firefighters. The system should be changed to meet the needs of the times, such as by ensuring money will be paid into the bank accounts of individual members.

A scheme that helps university students find jobs by certifying their activities as volunteer firefighters, as well as a tax incentive for companies that cooperate in firefighting activities on a volunteer basis, has produced some results. Such measures to encourage people to join volunteer fire corps should be expanded. The participation of women and foreign residents is also likely to be effective.

In recent years, large numbers of volunteers have gone to areas hit by major disasters to contribute to relief efforts. It is hoped that the number of volunteer firefighters will increase by making it known to many people that there are places close to them where they can play an active role even in ordinary times.