Taiwan firefighters overworked, pressured not to speak up

Taiwan firemen in training. They will learn to respond to a wide variety of disasters and save countless lives during the course of their career. Photo: taiwansg.bbspace.org
The Wild East / Society

Taiwan firefighters would like to change the system – by putting firestations, like the police, under local government control

Earlier this year, Taipei Times actually had a relevant article about Alex Chu, who called for the improvement of working conditions of Taiwan’s firemen. Chu filed a report on CNN’s iReport website about how Taiwanese firefighters are understaffed and underworked. Of the island’s 23,000 firefighters, he pointed out, less than half were qualified, adding that “firefighters have to work approximately 100 hours per week, working two days and taking one day off” in cities other than Greater Kaohsiung and Taipei, where firefighters work one day and take the next off.

Worst of all, the Taiwan government not only intervened in firefighters’ attempts to improve their working conditions, but punished them. Firefighters told Chu how Hsu Kuo-yao (徐國堯), a firefighter in Greater Kaohsiung, was transferred to a job 50km from his residence and received a demerit for organizing — through Facebook — the “Legal working hours to save the firefighters” event set for Aug. 31. Execrably, the Ministry of the Interior compounded the problem, and said participants in the event would receive a “C” grade on their annual evaluations. Meanwhile, other fire stations scheduled exercises on the date of that event in order to deter people from attending, Chu reported.

Drawing on his own experience as a volunteer firefighter in the U.S., Chu, who emigrated to the US before moving back to Taiwan, said many American cities gave firefighters 48 hours of rest for every 24 hours of work.

“All they [the firefighters] want is humane working hours for firefighters. All they want is to make their job more professional by not doing other departments’ jobs and all they want is respect,” he said.

A firefighter in central Taiwan spoke to The Wild East magazine by email about this issue, whom we’ll call ‘Fred.” Fred said this was “an excellent article” in the Taipei Times, “this is right about us,” and “all we want is just like Chu said.”

“I never dreamed about having 48 hours off for every 24 hours working,” he added. “I just only dream of one day of work and then one day off. But in most cities, the local government says it cannot offer this kind of working model for fireman.”

The Wild East: Why not?

Fireman Fred: Because they cannot hire more firemen. They always said that they don’t have enough money. So they ask us to work such a long time in the station, and we can’t just quit, because people need us. If we decide to stop our duties for one day, you can imagine how much damage it would cause in the city…I usually don’t share this stuff with my friends or family…It’s a shameful situation here…even the police have much better welfare [treatment] from the government, because the central government controls and assembles everything about the police.

The Wild East: Shameful, yes…and unfortunate. There’s plenty of money. Taiwan is rich. It’s just the priorities the government officials make are not right… That happens everywhere.

Fireman Fred: But firefighters are under the control of the local government. It’s non-sense. What we want to change is — change the system, make ourselves part of the local government…but they love to hold us on their own hands…

The Wild East: I’m surprised firefighters are not a part of the Ministry of the Interior?

Fireman Fred: oh, yes, we are under the MOI, but just some parts. Not every aspect. For example: for the police, the MOI could decide how many firemen, the manpower in an area. And they also have the right to check everything in each local police station. But for firemen, the MOI just has the right to check how well and how bad we execute our business. But the MOI has no right to assemble and decide on how many firemen in each city or area.

The Wild East: And funding is separate, you said… are the police funded by local government?

Fireman Fred: No. I need to take a rest now…

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