China’s teenage, untrained firefighters make disasters like Tianjin worse

Firefighters carry the body of a victim after the Tianjin blasts.
Firefighters carry the body of a victim after the Tianjin blasts.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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More than 1,000 firefighters were dispatched after a series of massive explosions killed dozens and left hundreds injured in the northeast Chinese port city of Tianjin on Aug. 12. Tragically, some of these firefighters, which included contract workers just 17 years old, might have made the situation worse.

The culprit of the blasts is Ruihai International Logistics, which handles “dangerous chemicals.” Chinese officials have found 700 tons of sodium cyanide at two locations near the blasts stored by Ruihai, reportedly 70 times the permitted quantity. Calcium carbide, another chemical known stored at the site, can emit flammable gases when it becomes wet.

Firefighters from the the Tianjin Port Group, a government-bureau-turned state-owned company that serves as the main operator of the port of Tianjin, were the first to arrive at the scene and hosed down the blaze with water, which caused more blasts, according to reports in Chinese media, including well-respected business newspaper Caixin reported (link in Chinese). After rescue work continued for around an hour, the blasts took place, Caixin reported.

Several firefighters of the company now treated in hospital told the Beijing News (link in Chinese) that they did not know the fire was caused by chemicals. But rather than dying down when they wet it, the fire “became bigger and bigger,” one told the newspaper. Firefighters said they were barely trained to use foam and sand though the two are a must in dealing with chemical fires.

“No one told them the fire involved chemicals,” a firefighter who was off duty the night of the explosions told  the New York Times.

Once they arrived, the firefighters should have gotten instruction on the compositions of hazardous materials from Ruihai, and followed these to put out the fires, an anonymous person from a forwarding company who do business with Ruihai told Caixin.

Firefighters carry the body of a victim from the site.
Firefighters carry the body of a victim from the site.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee

Chinese officials ordered firefighters on the scene to halt rescue work (link in Chinese) around ten hours after the explosions. Military personnel specializing in handling nuclear and biochemical materials were sent to the site, and the firefighters switched to using foam and sand. More than 40 hours after the explosions began, all the fires were put out.

Like “migrant workers”

China has a three-tier firefighting system. The country has 130,000 official, national fire-fighters, who are controlled by the Ministry of Public Security. Local governments and public institutions also have firefighters. And finally, businesses who have a high risk of fire are also obliged to set up firefighting teams. Those include businesses that produce or store inflammable or explosive goods (like Tianjin Port Group), according to China’s fire protection law.

Despite the three-tier system, China has less than 0.2 firefighters per 1,000 residents, far below the average number for developing countries of 0.3 to 0.5, the Beijing News noted (link in Chinese). The U.S has around 3.6 firefighters per 1,000 residents, according to date from the National Fire Protection Association (note: the US figures include a large number of volunteers).

Top-tier firefighters of the state public security ministry, who usually serve for just two years, enjoy the same status as police officers. Some of those funded by local governments and government-owned businesses also are treated as civil servants, with the same perks and often robust training. They are referred to in China as “in the system” firefighters.

But most of the second and third tiers are not “in the system,” and often are not full employees, just contract workers. These include the firefighters of the Tianjin Port Group.

The state-owned company hired 240 contract firefighters, though they report to the public security bureau of Tianjin, Caixin reported (link in Chinese). Caixin said those firefighters are always the first to respond to an alarm in the Tianjin Port, though they are less professionally-trained than public security ministry firefighters.

“They are a bit similar to migrant workers,” an anonymous person at the public security bureau of the Tianjin port told China Newsweek (link in Chinese). When the company needs people, “they hire” them, the person said, “the younger the better.”

According to the country’s fire department (link in Chinese), China’s businesses had hired around 65,000 firefighters at the end of 2013, known as “enterprise funded” firefighters. Of those, nearly 37,000 are contractors, without full time employment benefits. Contract firefighters also account for the majority of firefighting crews in city or village level governments.

China has a total of 113,110 contract firefighters, nearly the total of the country’s 130,000 (link in Chinese) public security ministry firefighters. These contract workers reportedly don’t stay in the job long (link in Chinese) thanks to low payment, lack of promotion, and great danger.

“A large gap in public security firefighters on active service, and a severe loss in contract-based firefighting crews—these are the two biggest problems China’s fire service system is facing,” an expert at the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Academy told the Beijing News (link in Chinese).

A mother of a missing firefighter told state-run digital publication The Papers that her son was paid around 4,000 yuan (approximately $626) per month, about double the lowest wage in Tianjin. 

Contract workers’ heavy toll

It is still not clear how many of these contract workers were deployed to the blast site, but what is clear is they paid a heavy price.

As of 9am Aug. 17 in China, at least 114 had died in the blasts, and 70 are missing, Tianjin authorities said at a press conference (link in Chinese). Of the 54 dead that have been identified, 39 are firefighters. Firefighters also account for 64 of the 70 missing. Of those, contract firefighters account for 23 of the dead, and 56 of the missing.

The Tianjin Port “Fifth Brigade” firefighting unit may be completely gone. Of the unit’s 25 members, two are dead and 23 missing, many of them in their teens. The Beijing News posted a photo of the unit from Chinese New Year 2014 on Sina Weibo:

An incomplete list of missing firefighters compiled by Chinese media shows that at least five of them are just 17 years old.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said families of the deceased official firefighters and contract counterparts will be given the same compensation when he visited injured firefighters on Aug. 16.

“They are all heroes,” Li said (link in Chinese).