Fire officials put the nation at risk as they rake in bribes

To get a business off the ground, the right people must be paid - so safety is neglected

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 6:34am

Firefighters are generally considered to be heroes, ready to risk their lives so that others may live. But after the nation's deadliest blaze in 13 years, insiders say the fire services are rife with corruption that is largely responsible for the frequency and high death tolls of fires across the country.

A veteran fire-safety engineer with more than two decades' experience in Wuhan, Hubei, estimates that up to half of the fire-prevention budget for a typical business goes to bribing fire officials at various levels, whose fire safety approval is needed before their doors can be opened to customers.

"For a very large project, such as a subway, airport or residential compound, the bribes make up 20 to 30 per cent of the [fire-prevention] budget," he said. "For small projects such as a restaurant or a pharmacy, it's as much as 50 per cent."

Vast sums end up in the pockets of corrupt fire officials instead of being spent on fire prevention and essential training for staff.

At least 120 people died and dozens were injured on Monday when a poultry plant caught fire in Dehui , Jilin province. The plant's doors were locked when the fire broke out, and the public has been quick to direct blame at government officials for failing to enforce stringent fire-safety measures.

To obtain a fire-safety certificate from a local fire department, a business owner must pass five "checkpoints" in a complicated and lengthy administrative process, the engineer said. Each checkpoint is guarded by officials in charge of site inspections and reviewing construction blueprints, equipment and contingency plans. Bribes considerably expedite the process that officials might otherwise draw out for weeks, months or years.

Bribes range from a few thousand yuan to hundreds of thousands, per official, depending on their rank and the size of the project, he said. But money isn't everything - some officials must be wined and dined or given luxury cigarettes. Others request the services of prostitutes.

Compared to police and the military, firefighters are held in higher esteem by the public by not being involved in the arrests of dissidents or suppression of protesters. They risk their lives tackling fires, traffic accidents and natural disasters.

Salaries of firefighters are quite low - about 3,400 yuan (HK$4,300) a month in Shanghai - and many come from poor or rural families, as the job hazards dissuade many people from joining. Across the mainland, about 30 firefighters are killed each year responding to emergencies.

However, competition for administrative posts within fire departments was fierce, and only those with strong connections or family influence would stand a chance of winning non-frontline jobs where the real money was made, the engineer said.

Yet corruption within fire departments largely flew under the public radar, and it was getting worse, he said. "Many senior officials plant their children or relatives there because it is a very lucrative field and is relatively safe."

In the 1990s, most fire officials who were offered a bribe would have felt embarrassed, he said. The sums offered were relatively small. But today, extortion and bribery are standard practice, and officials may be deeply offended if they are not sufficiently bribed or treated well during a site inspection.

Most developers know how fire department corruption works and bet their projects' approvals on bribes, he said.

As a result, many projects end up with superficial fire-prevention features, such as extremely narrow fire escapes, not enough fire exits, cheap smoke detectors and poor fire extinguishers.

The owner of an internet cafe in Guangzhou's Tianhe district said she had been shaken down for bribes several times a year since she set up shop in 2007.

"At first, I thought they were really concerned about fires," she said. "I added, upgraded or changed alarms and equipment according to their requirements, but after each inspection they would harass me with minor issues.

"In the end I gave up and handed the head officer 50,000 yuan in an envelope. Now they come back for money before every major public holiday."

Few fire department officials were blamed for oversight or corruption, the engineer said, because investigations were often conducted by the same fire department that initially approved the project's safety.

Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said corruption within fire departments must be tackled or the public may lose its remaining trust in government.

"The power held by fire departments has gone unchecked for decades," Hu said. "No other government agency is allowed to monitor its activities, the public is kept in the dark about its operations, and domestic media are not allowed to report on such sensitive and negative issues."