Why Chinese firefighters died

Part of understanding why so many firefighters died in the recent explosions is knowing how their fire service is structured

In November 2012, my wife and I spent nearly three weeks in Asia. During that time, I met with fire service personnel and learn about the many ways the fire service is structured throughout Asian cities and countries.

Tianjin is the name for both the region southeast of Beijing and the name of its primary city in the region; it has an estimated population of 15 million. We traveled from Beijing to the Port of Tianjin by bus with our Chinese guide, Peter, to meet a ship that would take us to South Korea.

We left Beijing in a light rain that grew in intensity during the 80-mile drive south toward Tianjin. When we arrived, we found that the port had been closed to any incoming or departing ships due to the storm that was a remnant of a late-season typhoon battering the east coast of China with torrential rain, high seas and 80 mph winds.

Port of Tianjin, China (Photo: Robert Rielage).
Port of Tianjin, China (Photo: Robert Rielage).

Tianjin became an unexpected stop on our journey for nearly 30 hours as we waited out the storm.

Peter described Tianjin as a modern and ever-expanding city that was built to handle China's growing computer, manufacturing, industrial and shipping industries. The companies based in Tianjin continue to attract talented scientists, engineers and technicians from around the world to work in this modern setting of high-rise buildings used both as offices and housing.

From our 10th-story room, we could see this expanse and the close proximity of housing to both the industrial areas and the port. The port itself is one of the 10 largest in the world with what appeared to be shipping containers in the tens of thousands lining the port for transshipment, and row upon row of imported automobiles in several lots throughout the waterfront.

Fire service
The fire service in China, especially in expanding areas such as Tianjin, has two distinct means of fire service delivery. First, and the most proficient, are municipal firefighters organized along paramilitary lines.

These firefighters usually wear a fatigue-style uniform with distinguishing patches on the sleeves and headgear symbolizing they are firefighters.

Their apparatus, equipment and PPE are standardized with several units appearing to have a Spartan cab and chassis, but void of all logos from an original manufacturer, so I couldn't determine if the apparatus had been actually made in the United States or copied from our designs.

These firefighters are also highly disciplined and well trained. For a Western comparison, they are very much like the fire brigade in Paris where the firefighters, or pompiers, have been a branch of the French military since Napoleonic times.

By contrast, in the faster-growing areas such as Tianjin where the continual expansion may have stretched the municipal resources, industries can also contract fire protection from private companies.

While I never met these firefighters directly while in China, I am familiar with the concept from countries such as Kenya. Generally, these contract firefighters receive less training and less standard firefighting equipment or PPE.

The reports that many of the missing or killed were firefighters in their late teens or early 20s leads me to believe that contract firefighters were among the first to arrive at the initial fire. Some news reports back this notion.

For comparison purposes, these firefighters are something akin to an industrial fire brigade. Their leadership may have advanced training and knowledge of specific fire protection methods, but the level of training and equipment used by the contract firefighters may be less than ideal.

Fire and explosion
Initial news of the fire and subsequent explosions came through amateur video shot on cell phones, probably by foreign workers living in the high-rise housing units near the conflagration.

These workers have more latitude in the use of social media and direct access to outside news agencies. In the aftermath, Chinese authorities have carefully controlled the subsequent videos; so, many of the details on the fire and explosions are still lacking.

However, from an Aug. 15 article published in The Economist, we have some interesting preliminary details.

  • The fire reportedly originated in a building used by Ruihai International Logistics, but any mention of this company in the Chinese database listing Tianjin companies was immediately removed from Internet access.
  • Firefighters were reported to have been on the scene for about 40 minutes before the two explosions that sparked an even more widespread conflagration.
  • The Chinese Earthquake Administration's seismograph registered the second, more violent explosion as a magnitude 2.9 on the Richter scale.
  • The Tianjin explosions were the fifth such large-scale industrial explosions in China since April, emphasizing that safety precautions including U.N./NFPA placards and distance separations appear to be lacking enforcement.

On Aug. 14, the BBC interviewed a British chemical engineer who theorized the blasts were caused by firefighters using water in an attempt to extinguish the initial fire.

He said that strong oxidizer alkaline metals such as beryllium, strontium, barium or radium were involved in the fire and that the water reacted to form highly flammable hydrogen gas that caused the explosions and massive fireball. Note that magnesium and calcium are also members of the alkaline family of Earth metals.

Largest single loss
Bomb Damage Assessment experts believe the combined blasts were the equivalent of at least 60,000 pounds of modern explosives, but since no overhead photography of the damaged area has yet to be released, that estimate of the power from the blast cannot be confirmed.

Complicating the investigation and its transparency are the conflicting reports of the amount of sodium cyanide released by the explosions into the surrounding neighborhoods. Estimates range from 100 to 1,000 pounds of the deadly toxin was present at the site of the Ruihai facility.

What we know as of now is that over 200 people died or are still missing, with over 100 of these being firefighters. Another 700 individuals have suffered serious injuries requiring hospitalization.

If these numbers are any indication, it would appear that this is the largest single loss of firefighters since the attacks of 9/11 in the United States. Our sympathies go out to the grieving families of these firefighters and the other victims of the blasts.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has in the past two years made new attempts to purge his government of graft and corruption, visited the site on the fourth day of the firefighting efforts.

He has assured the people of Tianjin that there will be an all-out effort in the investigation of this incident. What is really needed, however, is the strict enforcement of the safety standards adopted, but not uniformly enforced, by Chinese authorities.

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