The government is pushing a plan to integrate local firefighting headquarters so that each headquarters will have about 300,000 or more people under its jurisdiction. The government should consider whether this plan is appropriate in enhancing the ability to fight fires and improve disaster management in local areas. The plan should be pursued flexibly by taking into account the conditions of each area.

Under the 2006 government plan, 45 prefectural governments except for Niigata and Tottori worked out their own integration plans. On the basis of these plans, the central government set the goal of integrating 807 firefighting headquarters that existed in 2007 into 298 headquarters by the end of fiscal 2012. But it is expected that there will be 745 headquarters at the end of April 2013.

Behind the slowness in the integration is fears that if one headquarters covers a large area, its firefighting ability and disaster management will deteriorate and that communications between fire brigades and municipal disaster management sections that constitute each firefighting headquarters will become difficult. The central government may have adhered to the unrealistic idea that if one headquarters covers a large area, its efficiency will increase. There is also a possibility that prefectural governments did not give careful thought to the central government’s plan. They may have failed to carefully consider the particular geographical conditions of each area and the conditions of roads connecting various areas.

At present about 10 percent of firefighting headquarters across the nation have 300,000 or more people under their jurisdiction, while about 60 percent of headquarters has less than 100,000 people under their jurisdiction. The latter group faces such problems as a shortage of fire fighters and a shortage of funds to acquire advanced equipment such as hook-and-ladder trucks and better equipped rescue vehicles.

In September, a panel of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency proposed delaying the goal year of the central government’s plan by five years and carrying out the integration of firefighting headquarters flexibly by taking into consideration the conditions of each area. Still the central and local governments and local residents should consider whether the central government’s integration plan really makes sense and what kind of setup will enable firefighting headquarters to carry out their responsibilities in the most effective manner possible.

The 3/11 disasters and torrential downpours that cause sudden, severe damage have highlighted the need to strengthen the firefighting ability and disaster management at local levels. Prefectural governments should carefully listen to the opinions of municipalities and local residents in strengthening the firefighting headquarters. There may be cases in which the integration of headquarters could cause more harm than good.

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