City in Osaka Pref. To Form All-Foreigner Volunteer Fire Corps; Group Will Assist Foreign Residents If Disaster Occurs

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Volunteer firefighters conduct an exercise with hoses in Hyogo Prefecture in July 2023.

OSAKA — The government of the city of Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, plans to establish a volunteer fire corps made up entirely of foreigners within this fiscal year, in what will be the first attempt of its kind in the prefecture.

The job of a volunteer fire corps is to rush to the sites of disasters and fires to conduct rescue and firefighting efforts. Members are often company employees and students. If a fire or a disaster occurs, they rush to the site and assist professional firefighters by engaging in such duties as extinguishing fires, rescuing people and guiding evacuees. Each municipal government sets criteria for appointing volunteer firefighters under its particular local ordinances.

There have been an increasing number of cases of foreign nationals serving as members of these corps, which are in charge of local disaster prevention.

The expectation is that foreign volunteer firefighters will be able to respond appropriately to incidents in which foreign nationals are affected by disasters because they will be able to take into account differences in languages and living customs. It is planned that the foreign members will help other foreign residents and travelers evacuate and serve as interpreters in shelters in cases when, for example, a disaster paralyzes traffic networks.

The city government plans to require foreigners who join the branch corps to be able to have daily-level conversations in Japanese and understand instructions and orders from Japanese fellow members.

Going forward, the city government will discuss in detail with the city’s five existing branches how the foreigners-only branch is to be managed. The city government aims to follow this up by revising relevant municipal ordinances and then starting operations of the new branch.

The government of Izumisano, which is home to Kansai International Airport, has established a policy of actively bringing in foreign workers.

As of the end of April this year, residents in the city with foreign citizenship numbered at 3,028, accounting for about 3% of the total population.

Another factor prompting the formation of the foreigners-only volunteer fire corps was the increase in foreign tourists staying in the city following the end of the COVID-19 crisis.

In accordance with the Fire Service Law, volunteer fire corps are organized by municipal governments, and their members are treated as part-time special public servants.

Duties of the members include ordering other people to leave fire sites and destroying buildings to prevent fires from spreading further.

However, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in 1953 expressed the view that public servants who wield such public power need to have Japanese citizenship.

Because this principle has been interpreted as also applying to members of volunteer fire corps, it seems that many local governments are leery of allowing foreign nationals to join volunteer fire corps of this sort.

Therefore, the Izumisano city government has adopted a system of “function based corps” to create the corp.

These are members who are chosen in advance to perform particular duties. The representative example is female volunteer firefighters who specialize in caring for female evacuees in shelters.

The city government is preparing a scheme in which foreign members of volunteer fire corps will be able to perform duties which do not constitute enforcements of Japan’s public authority.

The city government plans to ask foreign residents in the city to join the volunteer fire corps.

Toshiaki Kinouchi, Crisis Management officer for the city government, said, “The purpose is to encourage a wide range of people to get involved in the event of a disaster. I want to invite foreign nationals who are interested in disaster prevention or volunteer activities to join.”

A 1.8-fold rise in 3 years

According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, volunteer fire corps members with foreign nationalities numbered 479 nationwide as of April 1, 2023. The number represents a 1.8-fold rise since 2020, the year the FDMA began collecting the data, when it stood at 269.

In Osaka Prefecture, six cities, including Minoh and Kaizuka, employ a total of 10 foreign nationals as volunteer firefighters.

In Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, where a large number of foreign students live, the city government established a foreigners-only function based volunteer fire corps in 2015.

The Yokohama city government has also assigned foreign nationals to volunteer fire corps since 2020. In 2021, the city government created a “disaster prevention instruction team for foreigners,” which includes Japanese members who speak foreign languages.

In light of the increase in volunteer firefighters with foreign nationalities, during this fiscal year the FDMA is considering setting a range of activities in which these people can take part.

It is likely that the status of foreigner volunteer firefighters, which has so far been ambiguous, will be clarified.

An FDMA official said, “These efforts will effectively improve and strengthen our ability to prevent disasters in line with the actual conditions in each region.”