Firetrucks evolving to meet the challenges of the next major disaster

January 09, 2014

By ATSUSHI TAKAHASHI/ Staff Writer

If another disaster like the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami strikes again, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications intends to have responding firefighters better equipped and supported.

It is engaged in studying and developing new firetrucks, more mobile and capable of sustaining crews for longer periods of time, to prepare for powerful earthquakes and other natural disasters.

At the time of the March 11, 2011, quake, fire departments throughout the country were required to dispatch their firefighters as rescue workers to areas that for most were far beyond their municipalities. Of Japan’s 47 prefectures, 44 prefectures sent a total of about 30,000 firefighters from 9,000 units to the remaining three prefectures most severely damaged.

However, some of the firefighters reported harsh working conditions or insufficient rear-echelon support. One complained, “As we had only thin tents, we lost our strength due to the coldness of the nights.” Another said, “We could not even cleanse ourselves by taking a shower.”

Those reports led the agency to start research and development of new firetrucks that could be utilized in any disaster situation.

“The roles of firefighters are to extinguish fires or rescue people in their municipalities. Because of that, it was beyond their missions to work and camp out in distant places like members of the Self-Defense Forces,” said Norihide Sugita, director of the Mutual Aid Management Office of the agency.

The agency is now close to completion of new vehicles, and can lend them to firefighting entities in Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture, Osaka, Nara and Matsuyama in March at the earliest. One of the vehicles will be a truck that can serve as an on-site base camp. Another will be an amphibious vehicle that can advance even in inundated areas by expelling debris. The agency is also considering the possibility of airlifting a firetruck with a large helicopter.

The 20-ton firetruck that will serve as a base camp will be loaded with a large freight container, which will enable rescue workers from throughout the country to stay on site for long periods.

The agency is developing the vehicle in preparations for an emergency such as a huge earthquake striking below the capital of Tokyo or along the Nankai Trough, a depression on the seabed that extends about 700 kilometers from Suruga Bay off Shizuoka Prefecture to areas east of the Kyushu region.

The inside of the freight container is partitioned off. The container can also carry enough food and water to meet the needs of 100 people for a week. Air tents, electric generators, beds, floodlights, simple toilets and showers can also be loaded aboard.

The container can be extended from the side of the firetruck and serve as a roofed workplace or a resting place.

Meanwhile, the agency’s National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster in Chofu, western Tokyo, is repeatedly conducting operating tests of an amphibious vehicle to put it in practical use. It can be equipped with water cannons, beds to transport the injured, and other devices, depending on the situation.

The development of the amphibious vehicle was prompted by the Great East Japan Earthquake. At the time of the disaster, many firetrucks were unable to travel in areas inundated by tsunami. Rubber boats were also ruptured by floating debris.

As a result, rescue workers faced difficulties in reaching victims who needed assistance.

“Our theme in developing the amphibious vehicle is to make it smaller so that it can enter narrow places. Instead of giving several functions to one vehicle, we are aiming to give each vehicle a different function, such as water spraying, rescue and water supply,” said Katsuaki Kubota, director of the Earthquake and Natural Disaster Laboratory of the institute.

It will be able to advance by expelling debris with rotating steel boards installed to the front of the vehicle. In dangerous places, it will be operated by remote control.

The challenges are how to operate the vehicle in flooded areas where much of the debris is floating and to prevent them from getting flat tires. The research institute aims to put the amphibious vehicle into practical use in 2017.

When a powerful typhoon triggered landslides in Izu-Oshima island south of Tokyo in October, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency carried 13 firetrucks aboard the SDF’s C-130 transport aircraft. It was the first time that the agency has airlifted firetrucks to areas devastated by a natural disaster.

“As the SDF offered to airlift firetrucks, we accepted the proposal. In the future, the method could be used when land routes are severed by a powerful earthquake,” said an official of the agency.

When a huge earthquake strikes in the Nankai Trough, extended coastal areas along the Pacific Ocean could be devastated by major tremors and tsunami and, as a result, roads will be damaged in more than 40,000 places in the worst-case scenario.

At the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, arterial roads were also severed. After that, the agency began to study a method of transporting a firetruck with a large helicopter and carrying it to devastated areas.

“But even a large helicopter cannot carry a firetruck weighing more than five tons. Because of that, we found that kinds of firetrucks that can be airlifted are limited,” said an official of the agency.

The agency will list the kinds of firetrucks that can be airlifted and will begin examining a way to test airlifting them in the near future.

By ATSUSHI TAKAHASHI/ Staff Writer
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A new firetruck under development can have a freight container extended from its side. (Provided by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)

A new firetruck under development can have a freight container extended from its side. (Provided by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)

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  • A new firetruck under development can have a freight container extended from its side. (Provided by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)
  • An air tent that will be loaded into the new firetruck can accommodate 20 people. (Provided by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)
  • An amphibious vehicle traverses a slope in the compound of the National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster in Chofu, western Tokyo. (Atsushi Takahashi)

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