New fire laws could extinguish volunteer spirit

New fire laws could extinguish volunteer spirit

03 February 2011

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Russia — Volunteer fire fighters might get stuck in red tape before getting to battle the blaze.

New legislation aimed at helping civilians band together and protect their homes could leave individual volunteers marginalised.

Meanwhile creating a registered volunteer fire brigade will require a lot of time, effort and money with seemingly little support from the state.

The bill has been passed by the State Duma in the first reading, but there is still a chance to change it, believe experts.

And after last summer’s fires ravaged swathes of Moscow Region, throwing up choking smog which engulfed the capital, there is a clear need to ensure people on the ground are able to deal with the flames quickly and safely.

Mixed messages

The bill was meant to encourage Russians to join volunteer fire brigades or set them up, which could be a massive help to the ministerial firefighting service.

And Russia’s emergency situations ministry is keen on getting help from volunteers, and is planning to meet activists to discuss the changes.

But there are question marks about some details of the new legislation, which could inadvertently dissuade potential helpers.

Specialist training and health insurance sound like a good idea, but there is no indication of who will foot the bill.

“I do like the idea of training volunteers, but many people won’t do anything to get themselves prepared before something actually happens,” Alexander Babayev, who lives in Orekhovo-Zuevo and co-ordinated volunteers during the summer disaster, told the Moscow News.

Last year volunteers just needed to make a phonecall or send a message through social networks to join one of the groups. And no money was required for that.

“These were people with different social background, and some of them wouldn’t mind paying for training, others, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he said.

Out of date

But funding is just one of the bill’s blind spots, according to the Russian Public Chamber. The group has called for wider discussions and demanded that the plans be suspended.

“It was drawn up in 1999, and there have been many changes since that time,” Elena Topolyeva-Soldunova, a member of the Russian Public Chamber, told the Moscow News.

Recent wildfires showed a huge rise in civil activism, something almost unprecedented, and it would be right for the government to support it.

“It’s necessary to create some infrastructure for people who are willing to help, and take their interests into account,” she said.

“And inviting them to create their own unions is just strange.”

In addition to that experts believe the present version of the bill to contradict existing laws on NGO activities.

Summer blazes

Last year saw some of the worst forest and peat-bog fires to affect Russia for decades.

And with the authorities often appearing powerless to react it was down to volunteers to lead the defences against the flames.

Anastasia Severina of Karta Pomoshchi, a nationwide web service helping link volunteer groups, told The Moscow News that about 90 per cent of the relief efforts coordinated by her organisation last year came from individuals rather than the emergency services.

“Less than one per cent of the relief we saw came from state services,” she added.

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