January 14, 2015 12:43
Row after row of cars parked illegally in the narrow streets of Korean cities are blocking attempts to save lives if there is a fire.
Fires usually spread uncontrollably if they are not effectively contained within the first five minutes. "Every minute we lose after the first five minutes leads to a 10-fold increase in the fire's intensity," a firefighter said.
On Saturday, it took firefighters more than 10 minutes to approach a blaze at an apartment in Uijeongbu, which left four dead and 126 injured, because some 20 cars were illegally parked in front of the alley leading to the entrance.
According to a study last year by the National Emergency Management Agency, there were 1,600 areas in the country that were inaccessible by fire engines. Sixty percent were in residential districts, and next were commercial areas like open-air markets.
In Seoul, 466 areas were virtually inaccessible for fire trucks due to illegally parked cars or telephone poles, or simply because the alleys were too narrow.
Streets must be at least 4 m wide to allow fire engines to pass through.
Firefighters lack both the equipment and manpower to remove illegally parked vehicles in emergencies. The Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters has only four tow trucks at its disposal.
They can be mobilized in case of major conflagrations, but in many cases other tow trucks have to be called in, often from the other side of town.
The persistent problem has changed the way firefighters approach emergencies. Often they do not bother to approach through narrow streets and instead take the long way around.
One firefighter in Seoul said, "We simply consider those streets nonexistent and go around them even though they're short-cuts." As a result, they may end up traveling 1.5 km to get to the scene of a fire that is just 300 m away.
Park Jae-sung of Seoul's Soongsil Cyber University points out that the only penalty for illegal parking is a W200,000 (US$1=W1,084) fine, even though Koreans are still addicted to cars and parking space is desperately short.
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