A fire at a bowling alley in Greater Taoyuan’s Sinwu District (新屋) in the early hours of Tuesday morning claimed the lives of six firefighters and sparked a debate over illegal corrugated steel structures, a shortage of firefighters and on-site command and direction. However, the most urgent issue highlighted by the deadly blaze is the need to improve firefighting equipment.
In this year’s annual budget for the Taipei City Fire Department, the city government allocated NT$332 million (US$10.6 million) for disaster relief. Equipment scheduled to be purchased this year includes safety helmets for mountain rescue operations and a high-fidelity public broadcasting system for use during firefighting operations at a cost of NT$1.97 million, while NT$142,100 has been allocated for smoke bombs and testing class A protective clothing. However, an allocation of NT$9.69 million for the procurement of gloves and boots was cut, as was NT$2.12 million budgeted for waterproof, breathable and flameproof safety jackets. A total of NT$39.4 million has been budgeted for urgent rescue operations, including NT$158,000 for the procurement of safety vests and voice recorders.
This means that voice recorders have been prioritized over safety jackets, boots and gloves, which are crucial during rescue work.
The Taipei City Fire Department has allocated NT$80 million for the procurement of 23 fire trucks, one logistics vehicle and nine scooters, as well as another NT$71 million for 400 sets of protective clothing and hats, 100 self-contained breathing apparatus units (SCBA), 100 SCBA masks, setting up virtual servers for Taipei’s disaster response center, replacing 120 staff computers, and 40 computers for the disaster response center, as well as computer peripherals and spare parts.
The limited additional protective equipment — the 400 sets of clothing, the 100 SCBAs and the 100 SCBA masks — are to be distributed among all firefighters in the city. In 2013, there were supposed to be at least 1,834 firefighters in Taipei, but today, there are still only 1,105. The fact that there is such a shortage of personnel and even the most basic equipment is tantamount to putting the lives of all firefighters at risk. If this is the situation in Taipei, the nation’s capital, one can only speculate as to the situation in the rest of the country.
The lack of sufficient up-to-date basic equipment is troubling enough, but what should be done about the infrared thermal imaging cameras, searchcams and simple fiber-optic cameras that firefighters need? The fire in Sinwu resulted in a great loss of life, and part of the reason was that there was far from enough of this kind of equipment. When will the National Fire Administration and the respective city fire departments provide this equipment?
Without an adequate budget, necessary equipment and sufficient personnel, the job of a firefighter becomes even more dangerous. If the worst should happen and a firefighter is injured or killed on the job, the government has to pay compensation on top of the actual costs of fighting the blaze. Such expenditures are sure to exceed the cost of allocating a sufficient budget based on real needs that will allow for sufficient personnel and equipment. Why is the government incapable of learning its lesson and insistent on only trying to correct things one at a time? Such piecemeal efforts always cost more in the long run.
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