Russia in reform

Published:  22 November, 2011

The Russian Government is considering implementing a massive two billion dollar reform in the national system of fire service, writes Eugene Gerden from Moscow.

The plans are a direct result of inefficiencies experienced during last year's forest fires as well as a major catastrophe where burning peat bog fires in the capital's suburbs doubled the mortality rate of the population.

Last year’s fires in Russia caused large-scale damage to the country’s economy. According to Government estimates total losses from the heat wave and resulting forest fires amounted to more than 450 billion rubles (USD$15 billion), with 2.3 million hectares of forest completely destroyed.

Although large forest fires were experienced last year in countries including Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Greece and the US, no country suffered more than Russia in terms of economic and environmental impact.

In addition to wildland fires, the general situation with fires in Russia remains difficult.

According to the General Directorate of the State Fire Service of Russia, each year about 180,000 fires occur in Russia, killing an average of 14,000-20,000 people, destroying around 2.5 million square meters of housing as well as around 1 million hectares of forest land.

One of the reasons for these high numbers is the lack of Government attention given to the challenges faced by the Russian national fire service.

In 2010, the total firefighting investment for the Russian regions amounted to only 2.2 billion rubles (USD$66 million). In the case of forest fires, the investment into the extinguishment of one hectare of forest in Russia currently stands at the equivalent of only $0.033, compared to the US's $4.2.

During Soviet times the State Fire Service was part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was considered to be one of the most mobile and efficient state services in the country. In addition to firefighting, it was also involved in the handling of all disaster and emergency situations.

In the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR the new Russian government initiated a program to separate the State Fire Service from the Interior Ministry and merge it with the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES). This project was implemented in early 2002, but its success has been regarded as questionable.

According to recent data from MES, currently the number of employees in the Russian Federal Fire Service is estimated at 220,000, of which about 51,000 employees are on duty around the clock, and about 100,000 are in a state of instant readiness.

These numbers however are very small when taking into the account Russia's geographical magnitude and the number of remote regions in the country. Lack of firefighters in Russia is confirmed by the fact that currently there are only 5,000 fire stations in the country, while in Poland the number is estimated at 15,300.

Igor Kudryavtsev, Head of Firefighting department of the Volga-Ural region of Russia commented: “Over the past years a massive administrative reform has been implemented in Russia, which has also involved changes in the country’s national fire service. As a result a number of legal documents have been adopted by the government since 2005, and the majority of firefighting functions in populated areas of the country have been handed over to municipal and regional authorities of the Russian Federation. The federal centre is now only responsible for firefighting in critically important national security sites, as well as functions in the field of state fire supervision. The result has been some misunderstanding in the provision of fire safety in a number of Russian regions.”

There is a possibility that the reform of the Russian fire service will be implemented during the next three years with completion estimated for mid-late 2013. According to preliminary estimates, total cost of the reform will be around RUB 54 billion (USD$1,8 billion).

Among the main objectives of the reform is to increase the prestige of the Russian firefighter, to increase the level of technical equipment of the service and to decrease the current level of fire risk in the country.

Vladimir Rodin, head of the Commission on Fire Safety of the Opora RUSSIA Association (a Russian business association) and one of the leading experts in the field of fire safety in Russia commented: “The need for transformation and re-equipment of the Russian national fire service is long overdue. For a long time, especially in the 1990s, fire fighting equipment was virtually not purchased in Russia. In addition, the government did not build new fire stations, while old fire stations were simply closed. Numbers of volunteer firefighters used to be high during Soviet times, mainly in the large regional centers of the country, and focussed on commercial activities.

“Lack of funds for the maintenance and modernisation of automatic fire protection systems has resulted in a sharp increase of fire risk in the country, particularly in highly populated areas. In recent years, fatalities as a result of fires in nursing homes, boarding schools, dormitories, hospitals, and apartment buildings have become part of daily life.”

 

Reform

According to the State' plans the establishment of specialised firefighting units will be at the heart of reform. New units will be equipped with modern fire-rescue vehicles and equipment, as well as protective clothing for both proffessionals and volunteers. The establishment of the new units is expected to help solve the problem of lack of fire stations in the country, which in recent years has become extremely pressing. 

According to official state figures there are more than 28,000 settlements in Russia, equating to 37 million people that do not receive timely help during fires as a result of fire stations. The main reason for this is lack of funding at regional level for storage of fire equipment, rented premises, and energy.

The reform also involves plans to purchase new fire equipment, including aircraft, fire apparatus and fire trucks.

There are also plans to equip the Russian aviation fire fleet with modern technologies such as buckets and devices for the detection and extinguishment of fires, as well as air drones for fire observation. Successful implementation of these plans is expected to make the Russian air fire fleet the largest in Europe.

Moreover, experts of MES are putting in place plans to develop new firefighting methods using space observation technologies such as satellite monitoring systems. The implementation of this project and its funding will be jointly coordinated by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of Industry and Trade and Ministry of Finance.

In order to raise the effectiveness of the fire service, there are also plans to make some staff reductions. This year up to 15,000 management positions are expected to be cut.

In addition, according to general Michael Verzilin, the Director of the Special Fire Protection Department of the Russian Fire and Rescue Service, particular attention will be given to penetration of remote regions with communications and better road accessibility in order to facilitate entry for fire trucks.

 

Volunteer fire brigades

Finally, the reform involves establishing volunteer fire brigades, as Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Minister of Emergency Situations, commented: “At present about 34,000 remote settlements in Russia are not covered by professional fire departments, because the construction of fire stations is not considered economically viable. This problem can be solved through the development of voluntary fire brigades. Russia needs at least 700,000 volunteer firefighters.”

Shoigu recalled that at present the number of volunteer firefighters in Russia stood at 130,000 people, whereas in Europe, particularly Germany and Austria, these figures are much higher.

However, according to him, much is expected to change in the near future, thanks to the adoption of a number of laws by the Russian parliament, including those in the field of voluntary fire brigades.

Most Russian independent experts are not as optimistic about the future of the Russian fire service, pointing out that recent reforms in the field of fire protection and in particular the transfer of most authorities in this area to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations have not resulted in a significant  improvement of the situation.

However the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations does not agree with experts’ assessment. According to data provided by the MES, since 2006 there has been a steady decline in the number of fire victims, as well as the number and complexity of fires.

During the period from 2005 to 2010 the number of fires in Russia decreased by 18.3%, while the number of people killed in them by 24.3%, and injured by 1.2%.

The Ministry of Emergency Situations believes that the implementation of the reform will improve the alert level of Russian firefighting units, while the construction of new fire stations will contribute to the reduction of arrival times of fire fighting brigades to the fire ground.

  • Operation Florian

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