(31) Choson Has Viable Firefighting System

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By Yang Sung-jin

Last month, heavy downpours generated flash floods and landslides, leaving hundreds of people dead or missing. The ravaging natural disaster, however, did not stop brave firefighters from risking their own lives to save ordinary people.

The role of firefighters cannot be stressed too much. The notion was the same in the Choson period even though there were no glitzy tools such as fire engines, ladders and the 119 emergency telephone system.

Fires, when they happened, were devastating. In early 1395, a strong wind led to a big fire in Yangju, northeastern Kangnung-do, which turned its neighborhood and government offices into ashes.

In 1425, a government storehouse located in Sunchon, Cholla-do, was set afire, burning 1,860 bushels of rice and beans.

King Taejong, who founded the Choson Kingdom, was well aware of the potential danger fire posed to the capital city. In 1398, the Seoul administration filed a report to the king, urging preparations for fire: “Most houses in Seoul are thatched-roofed and space between houses is so narrow that the chances of a fire is worryingly high. Each district, therefore, should at least be equipped with water jars to contain fire.”

In 1425, successive fire accidents sent feelings of alarm through the royal palace. A city official said, “Recently, a number of fires broke out, sometimes as many as three a night. This is not because of the reckless house owners but because of petty thieves taking advantage of the chaos following a fire by stealing property.”

To nail the culprits, King Sejong granted the official’s proposal that a certain number of officials from each government office conduct a regular patrol at vulnerable points. And those who contributed to the arrest of fire-setting thieves would receive rewards from the government.

Despite the government-initiated moves to tame the fire, Seoul suffered a conflagration on Feb. 15, 1425. It was the northwest wind that encouraged a small fire in a residence in southern Seoul, which spread into neighboring districts, burning down a total of 2,170 houses, the Annals articles says. Confirmed casualties were nine men and 23 women, but the actual figure was probably much higher, the article adds.

Untamable Fire

Meanwhile, the blaze was reported to have moved toward the palace,raising fears among the king and his officials. King Sejong released an emergency order to the officials: “Even though storehouses containing money and food can be left behind, take all possible measures to save Chongmyo (National Shrine) and Changdok Palace.”

In the evening, as the officials reported that the fire missed Chongmyo, the king was relieved. Yet the damage was considerable since the king referred to the accident as “indescribable.”

The next day, another wave of fires devoured a prison, threatening a nearby bell tower deeply cherished by the public. Government officials were immediately mobilized to prevent the disaster; as a result, the belfry was preserved, but the flame destroyed some 200 houses.

Under the cover of fire, thieves stole property from the burning houses, the Annals says.

King Sejong held an emergency meeting and came up with measures to help the victims: “Survey the victims and supply them with food. Make sure patients get proper medical treatment. And if the victims are dead and have no relatives, the Seoul administration will help to bury them.”

As soon as the emergency measures were taken, King Sejong switched his focus on full restoration, starting with repairing houses and with giving workers a break if needed. For instance, military officers whose houses were burned down were excused from their official duty for a while. As many as seven months of leave were granted for those on duty in the government offices so that they could rebuild their houses.

No matter how fast and extensive the countermeasures were, King Sejong was still troubled by the disaster. The reason was that such a natural disaster was a heaven-sent punishment for rulers who failed to live up to their responsibility.

“Rulers should have a mind to care for the people. And the fire is a warning for me, exposing my misdeeds in the past and heralding what lies ahead. These days, the weather is truly unpredictable. The low precipitation may lead to a severe drought, which calls for public officials to help the farmers in earnest,” King Sejong said.

Meanwhile, official Yu Chong-hyon suggested a crackdown upon the hooligans who purposely set fires in order to steal property: “This unprecedented fire is due to the thieves desire to steal amid the chaos that follows fire. Therefore, we should investigate those who live comfortably even though they don’t have a job.”

He also proposed that the government dig wells wherever possible in the capital city and asked one in five houses to have a water jar in preparation for fires in residential areas.

Praying vs. Firefighting

Prime Minister Hwang Hee, however, opted for the traditional method _ praying: “The old practice dictates that we should pray for the heaven in order to prevent natural disasters. In the spring time, a ritual for rain is in order.”

High ranking official Pyon Kye-ryang blamed the fire on the newly introduced coinage system. He argued in front of the king that the regulations aimed at encouraging the public to use the coins instead of bartering are too harsh, generating deep resentment, which in turn angered the heaven.

But King Sejong was firm in his position on the new monetary system: “Your point is understandable. Yet the law has value. How can we change the law so easily. If we change it so often, people will not trust us.” Of course, Pyon’s proposal was flatly dismissed.

On Feb. 26, King Sejong ordered the Ministry of Personnel to set up a government-funded firefighting organization called “Kumhwa-dokam” (禁火都監) in order to prevent fire accidents — the very predecessor of today’s fire brigade.

A total of 24 officials were selected from various government offices for the job. Soon, a specific procedure for extinguishing fires was mapped out. Guidelines included the setup of a belfry to allow Kumhwa officials who spot an unexpected fire at night to ring the bell to signal the fire squad.

But the bell was used only for fires involving public offices and government-affiliated facilities.

In 1428 when a severely-damaging fire broke out, a chief official at Kumhwa-dokam was charged with neglecting his duty. “The only reason for the existence of Kumhwa-dokam is to prevent this kind of fire. Given that the damage of the fire is great, the preventive measures were insufficient and ineffective, so investigate the chief official of the Kumhwa-dokam and report the results,” King Sejong ordered.

Despite the heavy responsibility of Kumhwa-dokam, all the officials at the special fire squad found their job embarrassingly boring when there was no fire at all.

So they were the first to go when the government took a restructuring measure in May, 1460. But the short-sighted layoff and dwarfing of the fire squad resulted in another wave of uncontrollable fires and rampaging pyromaniacs 20 years later. Alarmed, the government revived the Kumhwa-dokam and strengthened its role and status in 1481.

After all, the role of firefighters cannot be emphasized too much, even in the Choson period.