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Japan Govt to Clarify Roles of Foreigners in Local Volunteer Fire Corps

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Volunteer fire corps members participate in a training drill in Nagano in September.

Facing a continuing nationwide shortage in volunteer firefighters, the government agency overseeing fire departments plans to create guidelines clarifying the roles that foreign nationals can fill in serving as volunteers in their local fire brigade.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry plans to disseminate the guidelines to local governments across the country as early as next fiscal year.

The agency hopes that by specifying the range of tasks that the foreign residents can perform, it will help secure new brigade members and strengthen local disaster response readiness.

Volunteer fire corps are established in municipalities to supplement full-time firefighting departments based on current law. The members are tasked with extinguishing fires, helping in rescue and evacuations and other duties, and are classified as part-time special local public servants who received stipends for their work.

For instances in which a public servant needs to exercise power over residents, such as ordering an evacuation, the government has adopted the principle of “Japanese nationality is required” ever since the Cabinet Legislation Bureau expressed such a view in 1953.

As such, foreigners on a volunteer fire corps have been unable to perform duties such as ordering residents to leave a fire scene or the destruction of structures to prevent a fire’s spread. However, the government has never clearly defined the scope of duties for foreign members, and local governments have been increasingly calling for clarification.

The fire agency is expected to spell out specific examples of the exercising of public authority by volunteer fire corps members, and specify which duties foreign members can perform. The latter will likely include guiding evacuations during disasters, serving as interpreters at evacuation centers and instructing residents on emergency medical treatment.

The decline in the number of volunteer fire corps members has been so serious nationwide that many local governments are looking to foreigners to fill the gap. The agency hopes its measures will help address the problem.