-- The Asahi Shimbun, July 21
EDITORIAL: Lessons must be learned from deaths of community firefighters.
Sachiko Tanaka is the leader of a Sendai group of families of suicide victims, called Ai no kai."
She receives requests for counseling also from the parents of people who died in the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March.
A woman in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, told Tanaka that her son, a member of the community fire company, was swept away by the tsunami while trying guide people the way to a safe shelter.
People tell me that he was a great person who saved many lives," the woman said.
But I wish he had not become a hero by dying. I wanted my son to be alive instead of saving other people."
The woman spoke in a hoarse subdued, tearful voice.
Tanaka has received calls from some other women in the same situation.
Community firefighters are part-time local government employees who perform fire suppression and other related emergency services for the local communities.
They usually have other jobs.
The Great East Japan Earthquake left 251 community firefighters dead or missing in the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
The number is far larger than the death tolls for full-time firefighters and police officers, both around 30.
Since most part-time firefighters are men in the prime of their working lives, many young children are now fatherless.
In a normal year, only several community firefighters are killed in the performance of their duties across the nation.
The mutual aid program for these firefighters is therefore not sufficiently funded to pay due compensation to the families of those who died in the disaster.
A way should be found to increase the amount the bereaved families will receive.
One community firefighter died as he went to shut the floodgate of a tide embankment just as the tsunami was approaching.
Another perished while striking the alarm bell of a fire tower to warn residents to evacuate.
Many members of community fire companies lost their lives to save others.
Let us express our respect and gratitude for these brave men.
But we should do more than simply applaud them as heroes.
Toshitaka Katada, a professor at Gunma University known as an expert in practical disaster prevention education, warns that the tendency of Japanese to praise people who risk their lives in performing their duties is dangerous.
Katada raises the question of whether sufficient measures were in place for the safety of these firefighters.
Community firefighters of today use cellphones as the main tool for communications among them.
Were the victims alerted to the fact that projected tsunami heights had been raised while the mobile services were disrupted?
It is urgently needed to take steps to improve the communications equipment and systems used by community firefighters.
Local fire companies in the hard-hit Sanriku region have been conducting tsunami drills every year.
When a tsunami warning is issued, community firefighters in the region are supposed to monitor the sea immediately outside the areas expected to be submerged.
They are also supposed to be the last to evacuate.
Are these rules reasonable?
There were residents who didn't heed the warnings to evacuate from community firefighters.
It is essential to improve disaster prevention education for citizens, especially for people who are not sufficiently informed of dangers related to earthquakes and other disasters.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency plans to start fresh debate on the roles and duties of community fire companies in times of major disasters.
Close and detailed scrutiny of the damage suffered by community fire companies in the disaster-hit areas will be a good start.
For long, there have been serious shortages of people willing to serve as community firefighters.
The March disaster has cast a fresh spotlight on the importance of the role of community firefighters as a key force in disaster prevention.
That's why we need to learn lessons from all these tragedies.