The government has for too long ignored civil defense, and needs to address the matter with greater urgency, legislators and military experts said.
Most Taiwanese have little awareness of the civil defense system, even though it has been in place since Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945.
After the Republic of China government relocated to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War, it established the Taiwan Province Air Defense Command, which was in charge of air raid defense and evacuation missions.
After 1949, the command became the Taiwan Province Civil Defense Command, and civil defense subunits were set up across the nation.
In 1973, the Ministry of National Defense was put in charge of all defense missions and the Ministry of the Interior in charge of civil defense, with the latter’s National Policy Agency responsible for supervising the civil defense operations.
Last year, Taiwan, a country of 21.25 million people, had more than 420,000 people in civil defense units.
According to the Civil Defense Act (民防法), the all-volunteer civil defense units are organized at four levels — city and county (the main units); district and township; state-run companies; and large companies, factories and schools.
Their main tasks are to maintain “local social order and assist in rescue operations of serious disasters during peacetime,” and handle “air defense evacuation and shelter, and in supporting military tasks” during wartime, the act says.
How active any of these units are is open to question, but given their many responsibilities and support roles, they are supposed to undergo rigid training, provided by the Ministry of the Interior and local governments.
Legislators say that is not the case.
A review by the Taiwan Statebuilding Party in September last year found that only a small amount of the funding allocated by local governments for civil defense purposes is devoted to training.
Of the NT$24.68 million (US$812,697 at the current exchange rate) Taipei allocated for civil defense annually from 2020 to last year, only NT$1.02 million, or 4 percent, went to training volunteers, with the rest going to social activities, such as year-end banquets and special gatherings, Taiwan Statebuilding Party Taipei chapter head Wu Hsin-tai (吳欣岱) said.
Taichung, Kaohsiung and Yilan County used only 2 percent, 10 percent and 13 percent respectively of their civil defense budgets for training, the review found.
Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Ching-yi (林靜儀) said that “the more we look into our civil defense preparedness the less we feel confident of the readiness of Taiwanese.”
Chang Li-ming (張離明), who heads the Taiwan Nation Security Institute’s civil defense project, said that the civil defense system was being held back by more than a lack of training.
It is facing systematic failure, he said.
The central government does not have a standard for the number of civil defense personnel each county or city should have, and instead leaves it up to local governments, he said.
Taipei and New Taipei City have 7,000 and 9,000 volunteers listed in their respective civil defense units, while Taoyuan, which covers four times the area of Taipei, has only 2,500 people, as its allocates less money for the purpose, he said.
Another problem is that applicants to civil defense units can join simply through an interview arranged by recommendation instead of having to undergo a standardized screening process, Chang said.
That results in civil defense units that are built on “human relationships, without proper evaluations and evaluation mechanisms.”
Civil defense units also lack concrete missions, with the Civil Defense Act and the Ministry of the Interior’s Civil Defense Mobilization Guidelines (民防人力動員計畫) offering little guidance other than saying that they are to support the military in wartime and help people cope with disasters in peacetime.
Chang urged the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of the Interior to amend the guidelines to clearly define the job of each city and county civil defense force, including their size and their responsibilities in wartime, so that local governments can draft their own civil defense training and management plans.
He also proposed that Taiwan adopt a program like the US Department of Homeland Security’s Community Emergency Response Team, a nationally supported, locally implemented initiative that teaches people how to better prepare for hazards that might affect their communities.
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