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Women Saviors of Volunteer Fire Corps as Membership Declines

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sayuka Ito, left, a member of the Kasai volunteer fire corps, shows children how to perform cardiac massage at an event in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, on March 4.

A growing number of women and students across the nation are training for the tragic possibility that they may have to save the day as members of volunteer fire corps, which are suffering from dwindling membership, especially in rural areas.

Thanks to promotional efforts by fire departments across the country, the number of women and students joining these corps, which also support local disaster prevention activities, has gradually increased.

The central government is also working to improve the environment to help secure more potential human resources. At the same time, it is vital to move away from the image of these fire corps as a “male-dominated society,” as one expert pointed out.

Role to be played

“With your weight on it, push the central part of the chest as hard as you can,” Sayuka Ito said at an event at a shopping mall in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, on March 4.

As a member of the Kasai volunteer fire corps’ 4th branch, she was showing children how to perform cardiac massage at the event held for the spring fire prevention campaign.

Ito, 19, also attends Tokyo College of Medico-Pharmaco-Nursing Technology in the ward to become an emergency lifesaving technician. Upon the invitation of a senior student at the school, she joined the corps last year, thinking that serving as a member would allow her “to contribute to the local community while gaining experience in lifesaving.”

As a fire corps member, Ito proactively talks to residents while out on patrol and carefully teaches lifesaving techniques.

“Regardless of your age or gender, you can be involved in the corps’ activities,” said Ito. “I find it fascinating. I believe there must be a role for me to play.”

Currently, the branch has about 40 members, of whom eight are women, including Ito.

“Female members play active roles in many situations, such as guiding the elderly and children in evacuations,” said Takashi Suga, 62, who heads the branch. “We’re lucky to have them.”

Critical situation

A volunteer fire corps is an organization established by a municipal government under the Fire Defense Organization Law.

As non-regular, specially tasked local government employees, fire corps members are responsible for extinguishing fires, rescues, providing evacuation guidance and fire prevention education, among other activities.

Their standard annual remuneration is set at ¥36,500, while the standard remuneration for emergency dispatches in case of disasters is set at ¥8,000 per day.

The number of corps members nationwide was 783,578 in April last year, down by about 20,000 from the previous year and falling below 800,000 for the first time, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

On the other hand, there were 27,603 female members and 5,706 student members — both record highs. More than 70% of the about 2,200 volunteer fire corps nationwide have female members, according to the agency.

It used to be common for men to serve as volunteer fire corps members in addition to their main jobs, but nowadays fewer people are joining. The trend is believed to be due to the declining birthrate as well as depopulation and the weakening of community ties in rural areas.

Seeing this as a critical situation, the agency has stepped up its PR efforts to attract more women and student members and is encouraging local governments to follow suit.

These efforts are spreading throughout the country and beginning to produce results.

In April 2018, an all-female branch of a volunteer fire corps was established in Kagoshima City. Its members conduct first-aid and fire prevention classes at schools and community gatherings and also promote their presence and activities by hosting radio programs. The branch has maintained about 50 members for the past three years.

Last November, the Wakayama City Fire Department set up a booth at Wakayama University’s school festival to encourage students to join the fire corps.

The Wakayama city government has introduced a system that certifies the activities of students who served as volunteer fire corps members so that they can promote their experience in job hunting. Thanks to the system, it has been successful in attracting student members.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

No more male-dominated society

In the Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, the central government set a target of increasing the number of female fire corps members to 10% of the total number. The figure is currently 3.5%.

“Many fire corps do not have a changing room for women. We want to improve the environment to make it easier for women to serve as corps members,” said an official of the agency’s Regional Disaster Management Office.

“The weakening of volunteer fire corps is a serious problem that directly threatens the safety of residents in communities,” said Kansai University Prof. Shozo Nagata, a specialist in firefighting administration. “It is necessary to change the conventional image of the fire corps as a male-dominated organization and expand the scope of members.”