Private rescue teams bloom across China, despite scarcity of funds and official support

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/17 18:58:19

After the Wenchuan earthquake, volunteer rescue teams sprang up across the country

The government has asked the teams to register and offered some guidelines

Due to a lack of professional management and training, some rescue teams are becoming obstacles themselves on a rescue scene

Volunteers from the Shuguang rescue team conduct a mission in Liulin township of Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Darong

These days, torrential rainfall is pummeling Hanzhong in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, so Zhao Darong's  mobile phone keeps buzzing with messages calling for help.

He is busy day and night doing rescue work on the front lines.

Zhao, 34, is not a government official, and does the difficult rescue work voluntarily.

"I do these things for nothing but to help those struck by disasters," he told the Global Times.

Zhao makes a living by contracting construction projects. He is also the vice director of the Shuguang Rescue Association of Hanzhong, a non-governmental self-funded rescue team.

On Monday, he led his team to salvage oil drums from the river after they were washed away by the heavy rains. "The oil drums will seriously pollute the river if we don't pull them, posing damage to the environment and people," he said.

Zhao's team isn't alone. As the rain continues to swamp the region, other local rescue teams including the Tianhan rescue team are also offering a helping hand to combat the floods.

"[Private rescue teams] are important complementary forces to the government," said Li Weibo, head of the Tianhan rescue team.

The team is now working closely with the local fire department, answering their calls. Instead of passively waiting for the government, Li, 36 and a businessman, told the Global Times that now more Chinese people like him are willing to actively participate in the rescue missions and take their destiny into own hands.

"It's difficult for the government to cope with the enormous number of rescue requests from Chinese people. So we need to do our work," he said.

Zhu Lijia, a professor of public management at the Chinese Academy of Governance, told the Global Times that the development of private rescue forces shows the improvement of China's society. The general public's civil awareness is awakening and they are willing to take responsibilities in social affairs. It's a positive sign in the civil society, he said.

Zhu added that the government should recognize the value of private rescue teams. In important disaster relief periods the government could hire them to help.

"Meanwhile, the government should stipulate laws and regulations in order to lay out a good foundation that these organizations can abide by," he said.


Rescue forces multiply

The Hanzhong branch of the Shuguang rescue team was founded four years ago. Zhao, an early member, said he personally feels that to rescue people from the door of death is more meaningful than just handing out food and money to the needy.

At first, he had limited rescue knowledge. After joining the team, he paid to learn from professionals.

Sometimes, a week's training can cost from 5,000 yuan ($749) to 8,000 yuan.

Because he runs his own business and can control his time, Zhao performs about 100 rescue missions each year, all for free.

Every time an emergency happens, Zhao sends out a message to his members. Those who are able to come will answer him. Others cannot because of work obligations.

The team now has 104 people, all part-time volunteers who devote their own money and energy. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s, and women comprise a big part, mainly doing auxiliary jobs.

Founded in 2016, Li's team now has more than 40 members from all walks of life, such as businessmen and white-collar workers.

According to Li, his early awakening to the power of private rescue teams dates back to the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan Province, which claimed more than 80,000 lives. He worked there as a volunteer.

He later spent several years to get rescue qualifications. He is now an instructor with the International Rescue Instructors Alliance (IRIA).

"The development of private rescue forces has been faster than I've expected. When I first started performing rescue missions several years ago, many people didn't quite approve, but now the general public are willing to make a contribution," he said. But he is still careful not to leak any information regarding his rescue missions to his parents as they would worry about his safety.

In addition to disaster relief work, there is also a rising demand for private rescue teams as increasing numbers of reckless Chinese travelers with insufficient outdoor knowledge get themselves lost in the wild, according to Zhao and Li.

A big fan of outdoor activities, Li pointed out that in the past, outdoor enthusiasts had to have basic outdoor skills before setting out. Now many just pick up their bags and set off. Some people even break into protected zones.

A search online finds a number of news stories about unscrupulous travelers who get lost in forbidden zones. Local rescue teams complain they're running out of energy searching for them. Zhao said they often need to rescue travelers in forbidden regions of the Taibaishan mountain in Shaanxi.

"We still need to save their lives when they get trapped. But I really hope that they can be punished by the government for their behavior and they should shoulder the money we spent on the missions," said Zhao.

Li's team now works with outdoor associations, providing them with free lectures on how to explore and protect themselves in the wild, in order to stop the irresponsible behavior at its root. He also gives free lectures to more than 200 schools across the region to educate young people.

Rescuers demonstrate how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation in Shaanxi Province. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Darong

Existing problems

Li Yanzhao, head of the well-known Red Cross Blue Sky Rescue Team's Qingdao branch, told the Global Times that China's private rescue forces started to blossom after Wenchuan earthquake. It took a decade for them to mushroom all across the country.

However, he noted that by the end of 2017, less than 4,000 private rescue associations registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, including some commercial training institutions. "The number and quality of the rescue teams are still at an awkward situation," he said.

Many teams don't fully understand the country's policies and they lack independent thinking abilities. "While the policies stipulate that the rescue teams should adopt a democratic management model, with a board that decides things collectively, in actual practice, many still only rely on the sole judgment of the team's head. This in the short term can solve problems more quickly and efficiently, but in the long run, it will be detrimental," said Li Yanzhao.

All the three interviewees told the Global Times that money obstructs the development of private rescue forces.

Zhao said that the professional equipment used in disaster relief is expensive but the self-financed teams don't have much capital to buy it.

"Take cars as an example, we all drive our own cars to the rescue site, but many aren't off-road vehicles which can climb mountains and have communication devices," he said.

Li Yanzhao added that the government doesn't offer much financial help.

In addition, while their tasks are dangerous, no insurance for private rescuers is available in the market. They can only buy a basic type of commercial insurance that pays about 100,000 yuan if accidents happen, according to Zhao.

Li Weibo said this type of commercial insurance is generally sold with a clause that voids coverage if applicants chose to go to a dangerous place when they know the risks. "We can't get enough protection," he said.

He also noted that there is a blind expansion tendency in China's rescue teams. "Some teams do not have adequate training and equipment, and can be a hinderance at a rescue scene," he said. So far there isn't a threshold for founding a rescue team.

Li Weibo has the highly reputed international IRIA certificate, but he said many people in the rescue field don't even know about it, let alone recognize its value.

Government help

In 2015, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released guidelines to better organize rescue teams. In China, non-governmental organizations are asked by the government to register with the local civil affairs bureau so that they can have more opportunities to enjoy the government's help.

The registration process is easy, according to Li Weibo and Zhao. A database of rescue teams has been set up, and teams are called by the government to travel outside their regions when disasters happen.

"We're expecting the government to lay out more detailed instructions on rescue teams' management, such as the introduction of a grading system in the future," said Li Weibo. He stressed that despite the efforts and achievements private rescuers have made, it's still the government that should play the decisive role in disaster relief.

He calls for the government to provide more free and professional training courses for private rescuers. "Also, if it is possible, they can provide us with equipment," he said.

"Most of my team members have the ability to conduct earthquake relief, but we don't have the equipment, which costs hundreds of thousands of yuan," he said.

Li Yanzhao warned that all rescuers should hone their skills and they should keep in mind that the disaster site isn't a showroom. "We need to upgrade our skills. At the current stage, many don't meet the requirements," he said.

Zhao noted to the Global Times that as the country is paying more attention to private rescuers, they can consider recruiting some private rescuers who don't have permanent jobs to join the government-run national teams.

Newspaper headline: Volunteering for danger

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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