Firefighters are truly the heroes of society. Their invisible sweat is the foundation of society’s public safety. However, with irregular work hours, physical and mental stress, and life-threatening hazards, being a firefighter is not an easy job. The job is especially more demanding in Korea where “one full-time firefighter is in charge of the safety of 1,200 citizens.”
The statistics from the National Fire Agency are not parallel with the inferior working conditions of firefighters. Efforts to improve the working conditions for the nation’s first respondents have been mediocre at best. The lack of firefighters, worn-out safety gears, and poor medical illustrate that firefighters are underpaid, undervalued, and neglected by society. The pride and sense of duty that firefighters uphold have not translated into fiscal or medical support from the country they serve.
President Moon Jae-in vowed to improve the situation upon his inauguration with initiatives to hire 15,000 new firefighters, establish healthcare centers for firefighters, and to change the current employment status. Change did take place under the new administration. The National Fire Agency, which was previously under the Ministry of Public Safety and Security (MPSS), became an independent government organization since 2017.
In July 2016, the Democratic Party of Korea proposed a new legislative bill, claimed to be “a law to wipe away the tears of firefighters,” that aimed specifically to change the employment status of firefighters. The bill pointed out that only 1.2 percent of South Korea’s firefighters are employed as central government employees while the rest, 98.8 percent, are employed as local government employees. Compared to the central government, which enjoys relatively strong financial support, rural local governments suffer from budget shortages, which is often the main cause to problems such as unpaid overtime pay and the lack of necessary safety gear.
By unifying firefighters as central government employees, the financial pressure in many fire departments is expected to be relieved by the national budget. However, the bill has been pending approval by the National Assembly for over two years as of today without any progress. Despite the promising initiatives launched by the president and his administration, no practical improvements have been able to take place due to the lack of cooperation from the opposition parties.
The Liberty Korea Party has shown its commitment and willingness to improve the working conditions of firefighters in the past. However, passing this legislation will increase President Moon’s implementation of his campaign pledges and add to his accomplishments in national affairs. Therefore, it is speculated that the Liberty Korea Party is expressing a reluctance to cooperate and withholding approval of the bill.
To make matters worse, it is speculated that the Liberty Korea Party is now reluctant to pass what was once their own bill. As President Moon has been constantly emphasizing the improvement in firefighter welfare, the legislation is expected to increase President Moon’s popularity and add to his accomplishments in national affairs. In this sense, the number one opposition party cannot easily empower the president's authority.
In recent years, twice as many firefighters have taken their own lives than those who have died on duty. The lack of medical support for firefighters and their line of work leave them vulnerable to mental diseases. Inadequate support and unfair treatment by the government have proven to be more distressing to those who routinely face traumatic disasters and accidents on duty. Governmental neglect should no longer continue, and firefighters must be fairly compensated for their duties and responsibilities.