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Citizens’ Emergency Training: Fukuoka’s Global Model

William Stafford / Mar 17 2011

For Release Thursday, March 17, 2011

William StaffordDo you know the best survival strategies when an earthquake hits? Would you know how to prepare for a tornado, lean into hurricane-force winds, escape from a smoke-filled room? If fire hit your home, would you know how to use that fire extinguisher you bought years ago?

The earthquake in Haiti, followed in close order by major seismic eruptions in Chile, Okinawa and Taiwan, should be a wake up call for a re-examination of readiness across the globe. We Americans should learn to be a little less obsessed with terrorism, much more about preparedness. The reality is that an earthquake or monster storm or wildfire epidemic could spell disaster for many more of us.

There’s a lot cities can do about this. And I got my first clue sitting on a plane to Fukuoka, Japan, as part of my work organizing the annual international city study missions of the Trade Alliance and Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The city, I discovered in my reading
materials, listed a disaster training center as a tourist attraction.

What could that be about? So on arrival in Fukuoka, I made a Sunday afternoon stroll to see what the center was all about. To my amazement, there was a line of families in the parking lot waiting to enter. I toured the facility and complimented one of the workers on parents bringing their children for training. She said, “That is not correct, sir. The children are bringing their parents. All school children must annually visit the center. They like it so much, that they bring their parents on the weekend.” The facility is run by the Fukuoka fire department.

Every major city in Japan, I learned, has an experienced-based disaster training center run by the city government. There is nothing like this in the United States. My discussions with local Red Cross and other officials suggest the American system is simply not effective. But the professionals I talked with were genuinely excited by the Japanese approach.

We brought our Seattle delegation to the Fukuoka center as part of the study mission. A sample of what they saw:

In one room there’s an interactive screen the size of a wall in one’s home. In the corner of the screen is a waste paper basket. Against the wall are four red fire extinguishers. Paper in the waste basket catches fire. The fire begins to spread. Four children run to get the extinguishers and spray them on the fire. If done properly, the fire goes out. If not, the room burns up!

It turned out that none of the over 74 Seattle delegates had ever used a fire extinguisher before, although all of them had one in their home.

Another room is set up as a kitchen, with a table, four chairs and a gas stove. Four of our delegates sat at the table. The room began to rock and shake to simulate either a 5.0 or a 7.0 earthquake. One turned off the stove while the others dove under the table and held onto the table legs. Afterwards, one of our business delegates said he would bolt his home to the foundation on his return to Seattle.

The center allows one to escape a smoke-filled room, learn about floods, experience typhoon-level winds, examine a medivac helicopter, and practice CPR. We discussed home safety precautions, smoke detectors use, and other day-to-day safety tips.

A U.S. Navy base in Japan uses a center near Fukuoka for the certification of baby sitters. Training for care givers from retirement homes and hospitals, school teachers and day care provider staff is possible. Every new Toyota employee in Fukuoka must go through the center.

Back home, prompted by what we’d seen and experienced in Fukuoka, the Seattle City Council appropriated $75,000 to hire a firm to do a feasibility study, visiting other Japan centers to flesh out its possible recommendations. We concluded the best metro site for the center would be at Seattle Center, which receives 12 million visitors annually. The facility could also be connected to the Pacific Science Center to add the science of fire, earthquakes or floods. We received contributions from insurance companies, hospitals and others to complete a phase two study. We also concluded that the Japanese approach was a perfect national demonstration for Homeland Security.

We asked Fukuoka to invite the Secretary of Homeland Security to visit its facility. It’s said in the Orient that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Perhaps President Obama, on his next trip to the Far East, should take along his Homeland Security advisers — and just as important, a delegation of mayors from across America — to visit the Fukuoka facility. The next step could be a series of demonstration projects in interested cities nationwide. The cost would likely be a fraction of what we spend checking bags and padding down passengers in airports every day — and in the long run, infinitely more important.

William Stafford is president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to