Heroic citizens face needless danger / Shortage of remotely controlled floodgates imperils volunteer firefighters
Tomoki Okamoto and Yuji Kimura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
KAMAISHI, Iwate--Floodgates that can be remotely operated could make the difference between life and death for volunteer firefighters and others involved in rescue operations.
More than 70 firefighters were killed or went missing during the March 11 tsunami, after heading toward the sea to close floodgates. Although volunteer firefighters are classified as temporary local government employees assigned to special government services, they are basically everyday civilians.
"When an earthquake occurs, people head for the mountains [due to tsunami], but firefighters have to head toward the coast," said Yukio Sasa, 58, deputy chief of the No. 6 firefighting division in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.
The municipal government entrusts the job of closing the city's 187 floodgates in an emergency to the firefighting team, private business operators and neighborhood associations.
In the March 11 tsunami, six firefighters, a man appointed fire marshall at his company, and a board member of a neighborhood association were killed.
When the earthquake hit, Sasa's team headed toward the floodgates on the Kamaishi coast. Two members who successfully closed one floodgate fell victim to the tsunami--they were most likely engulfed while helping residents evacuate or while driving a fire engine away from the floodgate, according to Sasa.
"It's instinct for firefighters. If I'd been in their position, after closing the floodgate I would've been helping residents evacuate," Sasa said.
Even before the disaster, the municipal government had called on the prefectural and central governments to make the floodgates operable via remote control, noting the danger aging firefighters would face if they had to close the floodgates manually in an emergency.
In Miyako in the prefecture, two of the three floodgates with remote control functions failed to function properly on March 11.
As soon as the earthquake hit, Kazunobu Hatakeyama, 47, leader of the city's No. 32 firefighting division, rushed to a firefighters' meeting point about one kilometer from the city's Settai floodgate. Another firefighter pushed a button that was supposed to make the floodgate close, but they could see on a surveillance monitor that it had not moved.
Hatakeyama had no choice but to drive to the floodgate and manually release the brake in its operation room.
He managed to do this and close the floodgate in time, but could see the tsunami bearing down on him. He fled inland in his car, barely escaping. He saw water gush out of the operation room's windows as the tsunami demolished the floodgate.
"I would've died if I'd left the room a little bit later," Hatakeyama said. He stressed the need for a reliable remote control system: "I know there are some things that just have to be done, regardless of the danger. But firefighters are also civilians. We shouldn't be asked to die for no reason."
There are about 570 floodgates under the management of the Miyagi prefectural government, of which 166 are permanently closed. The other floodgates have sliding mechanisms that make them easy to open and close, and the government asks fishery industry workers who need to open the gates to close them afterward.
The Iwate prefectural government plans to replace floodgates destroyed by the tsunami with ones that can be remotely controlled. A prefectural government official said, "We're also considering attaching solar-powered backup systems to the floodgates' electricity supply."
72 lost volunteer firefighters responsible for gate-closingOf 253 volunteer firefighters who were killed or went missing in three disaster-hit prefectures as a result of the March 11 tsunami, at least 72 were in charge of closing floodgates or seawall gates in coastal areas, it has been learned.
The tragedy occurred amid mounting calls for more floodgates that can be operated remotely, due to the danger of going to the coast to close gates immediately after an earthquake.
Given the large number of casualties, officials said the government will investigate the situation at the time of the tsunami and consider revising the rules for floodgate operations.
There are about 1,450 floodgates in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, including some to prevent the inflow of seawater into rivers and seawall gates to allow people to pass through.
According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 119 volunteer firefighters died or went missing in the March 11 disaster in Iwate Prefecture, 107 in Miyagi Prefecture and 27 in Fukushima Prefecture.
Of these, 59 and 13 were in charge of closing gates in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, respectively, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey of the municipalities and firefighting agencies concerned.
Volunteer firefighters are classified as irregular local government officials, and many have regular jobs. Their average annual allowance was 25,475 yen in 2008.
Their allowance per mission amounted to 3,356 yen for the same year. If voluntary firefighters die in the line of duty, the Mutual Aid Fund for Official Casualties and Retirement of Volunteer Firefighters pays benefits to their bereaved families.
There were slightly more than 880,000 volunteer firefighters in 2010, a drop of 67,000 from 2000.
In six municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture where volunteer firefighters were killed, the closing of gates was entrusted to private companies and citizen groups. A local resident of Namiemachi in the prefecture died after he went out to close a floodgate.
According to the municipalities concerned and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, volunteer firefighters were also swept away while guiding the evacuation of residents or while in transit after finishing gate-closing operations.
More firefighters were lost at these times than while closing gates, the agency said.
Of about 600 floodgates and seawall gates under the administration of the Iwate prefectural government, 33 can be remotely operated. However, in some cases, volunteer firefighters rushed to manually close gates because remote controls had been rendered inoperable due to earthquake-triggered power outages.
"Some volunteer firefighters may not have been able to close the seawall gates immediately because many people passed through the gates to fetch things left behind in their boats," an official of the Iwate prefectural government said.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, four volunteer firefighters trying to close gates fled from the oncoming tsunami, but three died or went missing.
According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, there were 25,463 floodgates and seawall gates at least two meters wide at seaports and elsewhere across the country as of March last year. Of these, just 742 units, or about 3 percent, could be remotely controlled, the ministry said.
The ministry will ask each prefecture to increase the number of remotely controlled floodgates and seawall gates while inspecting how the gates have been used and administered. Based on its findings, the ministry will decide on the order in which gates should be closed after an earthquake, and study a plan to keep shut at ordinary times gates that do not need to remain open.
Another factor that increased the death toll among volunteer firefighters was the fact that many did not possess wireless equipment, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. As a result, they could not obtain frequent updates on the heights of tsunami, it said.
The agency plans to establish a reassessment panel to study countermeasures, an official said.
"We'll consider the necessity of closing floodgates when we're in danger [from the onslaught of tsunami]."
Source 1, Source 2
Ok, for those who tl; dr, these volunteer firefighters risked their life to close the floodgates to lessen the damage from the tsunami. Some worked, some didn't. Further reading here and here