Maintaining Firefighting Capacity: Efficient Systems Need to Be Created to Protect Residents

There are concerns about the decline in the firefighting systems of local governments. Some small fire departments have not been able to respond to large-scale disasters. Progress must be made in consolidating and streamlining fire departments in order to maintain firefighting capabilities.

The Hitoyoshi Shimokuma Fire Department, which covers the city of Hitoyoshi and five other neighboring municipalities in Kumamoto Prefecture, was inundated with emergency calls during the torrential rains in Kyushu in 2020. The phones kept ringing, and the five staffers in the communications control room became unable to fully handle the calls.

Even when staffers picked up the phone and received requests for rescue, there were no firefighters available to be dispatched. All they could do was to advise people to “please evacuate to a safer place, if at all possible.”

This situation shows that with limited staff and equipment, personnel will not be able to respond sufficiently to large-scale disasters.

About 60% of the nation’s fire departments serve populations of less than 100,000 people. Population declines will likely make it even harder to secure human resources and budgetary funding.

Consolidating the fire departments of multiple municipalities has the advantage of allowing for budget reductions and flexible staffing.

In Nara Prefecture, a new firefighting union covering a wide area was established in 2014 by integrating 11 fire departments in 37 municipalities. Tasks such as taking emergency calls, which had been handled separately by each fire department, were integrated.

The number of firefighting vehicles required was also reduced due to the use of such vehicles over a wide area, resulting in lower overall purchase costs. Estimated budget reductions reportedly totaled more than ¥5 billion.

The number of fire engines that can be dispatched to large fires has increased to a maximum of 16, and some residents have said ambulances now arrive faster than before. This may serve as a reference for other municipalities struggling with budget and manpower shortages.

To proceed with consolidation, it is necessary to adjust the ratio of burden for staff salaries and operating expenses, which differ between municipalities. Mayors should cooperate with each other, taking into consideration such factors as the populations in their jurisdictions and the level of disaster risk.

Such consolidations must be carefully explained, taking into consideration residents’ concerns that fire engines and ambulances might not be able to come to their homes in times of emergency if the fire department is relocated farther away, and a system that will not impair firefighting and emergency medical services must be created.

Even if consolidation is not possible, simply having neighboring municipalities jointly operate their communications and command functions, such as receiving emergency calls, would be an effective measure.

In Oita Prefecture, the communications control tasks, which are now carried out by about 100 staffers at the 14 fire departments in the prefecture, will be integrated into one operation throughout the prefecture starting next October. The number of personnel required for the operation will be reduced by half, allowing the surplus staff to be deployed to firefighting and emergency situations.

It is important to accumulate such efforts in order to maintain a system that can help residents in times of emergency.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 12, 2023)