In disaster preparedness, we could learn from Japan

No matter where you live, you are susceptible to disasters, from fires in the home to natural disasters that could destroy your community. The Japanese people are far ahead of the United States when it comes to disaster preparedness.

William Stafford wrote an excellent article for The Reporter about their system of disaster training centers that are so popular they are even listed as tourist attractions.

Mr. Stafford makes the point that Americans “should learn to be a little less obsessed with terrorism, much more about preparedness”. It’s a valid point, especially when you compare property damage or the number of people killed by terrorism and natural disasters.

Here is an excerpt from the article, where he describes his visit to one of the disaster training centers:

On arrival in Fukuoka, I took a Sunday afternoon stroll to see the center. 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.

Disaster Training in Japan
Children at a school in Japan try their hand at a target practice game using fire extinguishers. Other drills teach kids how to use buckets of water to put out fires in case there are no fire extinguishers available. Photo: Kids Web Japan

She replied: “That is not correct, sir. The children are bringing their parents. All schoolchildren 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 took 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 more than 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. Afterward, 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.

More information about disaster preparedness training for children in Japan.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “In disaster preparedness, we could learn from Japan”

  1. We drove through Flagstaff about three weeks ago where it seems that the overgrowth of ponderosa pine is at emergency proportions.

    An interview on NPR with a psychologist after the shootings in Tucson revealed the likelihood that there are 20,000 Jared Loughners in the US.

    Is the strategic use of weaponized wildfire just a matter of time?

    1. Larry – I’m not sure I understand the term “weaponized wildfire”; please explain further. Thanks,


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