Tianjin warehouse explosion 2015

In wake of deadly Tianjin blasts, China must review its fire-safety regime

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 2:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 4:45pm

Of all the graphic images from last week's Tianjin port explosions and fire, perhaps the most heart-rending was of relatives seeking news of the people now known as the "forgotten firemen", who remain unaccounted for a week later.

Two things set these men apart. The first is that they are not elite or regular firefighting forces, but employed by the port's own fire department. The second is that although on the bottom rung of the professional firefighter's ladder, they were the first responders to one of the country's worst industrial accidents. Like the first responders to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, they were to suffer terrible casualties in the catastrophe that unfolded. Apart from at least 116 people killed, 56 firefighters were dead and 68 reported missing, many of them from the Tianjin Port Group's fire department.

Amid constant updates on the fate and welfare of firefighters on the public payroll, frantic relatives of the port's own firefighters were pleading with the authorities for information on what had happened to them, or the return of their bodies if they had died. Sadly for some, their wait for recovery of remains from the blasts and blaze may be in vain. Hopefully, Premier Li Keqiang has at least laid to rest fears that the families of privately employed firefighters would not be compensated fairly, assuring media that all would be treated equally.

Big companies and industrial operations are legally required to recruit and train their own fire departments to deal with emergencies. Despite their critical role, these firefighters are commonly regarded as the lowest level in a three-tier system and do not get the same benefits as top-tier staff controlled by the Ministry of Public Security and local governments.

The many safety concerns raised by this disaster include the outsourcing of emergency services. Ministry of Public Security fire departments are supposed to supervise training, but concerns have been raised about the thoroughness of it - including dealing with volatile chemicals - and also about inexperience and recruitment of those who are underaged. Firefighting is an essential public service. If emergency and first response in hazardous environments are to be delegated to a lower tier, training and equipment must be seen to comply with the highest professional standards. By all accounts, the mainland's fire-safety regime is in need of a review to see that standards are maintained from top to bottom.