Sat, May 30, 2015 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Focus on improvements, not blame

A Taipei court ruling on Wednesday ordering Nantou County Fire Department officials to pay compensation for the 2011 death of a hiker has stirred outrage. It is the first time that government rescue workers have been found liable in such a case. Most of the criticism is of the blame-the-victim mentality because Chang Po-wei (張博崴) decided to climb Baigushan (白姑大山) on his own after plans to go with a friend fell through. That outrage might be misplaced.

The seven-week search for Chang involved hundreds of people — officials, volunteers and some rescuers hired by the family. While Chang’s family sued the Nantou County police and fire departments, other police units, the National Fire Agency and a Forestry Bureau office, the court exonerated all but the fire department. The county fire department has vowed to appeal, saying the ruling was detrimental to society. However, it is more detrimental not to have the best-equipped and best-trained police, fire and rescue units possible.

The family said precious time was lost because the authorities initially refused to access Chang’s cellphone GPS data due to privacy concerns. Police and fire department teams also restricted their search to mountain trails because their ropes were not long enough to go down into the valleys, even though Chang’s girlfriend said she heard running water during a phone call he made the day after he began his trek, when he said he was lost.

Chang’s body was found by mountain climbers hired by his family — two days after they began the search — who climbed down 600m into a valley tracking water sounds. A medical examiner said Chang died five or six days before he was found. Understandably his family feels he might have been saved. Chang’s case is not the first — and sadly is unlikely to be the last — for which police, fire department and military teams have proven to be ill-equipped or ill-trained.

In June 1995, a fire gutted the top three floors of Taipei’s Grand Hotel, despite a response by hundreds of firefighters, because their extension ladders were not long enough to reach the roof, the water pressure on site was too low and military and police helicopters did not have firefighting apparatus.

In the Pachang Creek (八掌溪) tragedy in July 2000, Chiayi Fire Department personnel had never used key rescue equipment because the instructions were in Japanese, while the military wasted time squabbling over whose responsibility it would be to order helicopters deployed. The four workers trapped by a flash flood clung to each other for more than two hours awaiting rescue that never came.

On Jan. 15, 2013, a Hsinchu County man burned to death because the township’s fire department’s aerial ladder truck was too wide for the lane to his building, its aluminum ladders were not long enough and firefighters did not have an inflatable mattresses so that the man might jump to safety.

And those are just three of the more well-publicized incidents where equipment deficiencies proved crucial. Accidents happen and sometimes rescues fail even when respondents are fully equipped and trained, but we should be asking what could be learned from such incidents and take steps to improve the situation.

The Chang family has been trying to do that. In February 2012, the National Communications Commission passed an amendment to regulations for administration on satellite communication services (衛星通信業務管理規則) to allow telecom carriers to offer satellite communication services on behalf of foreign operators. The amendment was proposed by Chang’s mother so that it would be easier for mountain climbers to use satellite phones — and for rescuers to locate them.

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