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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 29)

2018/01/29 07:14

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Little has changed

: Hospital fire shows total failure of safety system

A hospital blaze in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, only proved how poor fire prevention and safety systems the country has. The fire killed 38 people _ 35 patients, a doctor and two nurses _ and injured 150 others, mostly elderly, after it broke out in the emergency room of Sejong Hospital in the southeastern city, 280 kilometers southeast of Seoul, Friday.

The fire was the deadliest since 2008 when a warehouse blaze in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, claimed the lives of 40 workers. It came just about one month after 29 were killed in a fitness center fire in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. But it is no surprise given the country's shameful safety track record.

As with the cases of Jecheon and other deadly fires, the tragedy in Miryang could have been prevented if proper precautions had been in place. In this sense, the hospital blaze was certainly a manmade disaster.

At the time of the accident, nearly 180 patients, most of them elderly, were in the five-story hospital building and a nursing home next door. Such a hospital should have had proper anti-fire devices and conducted evacuation training regularly in case of emergency.

Regrettably, however, the building had no sprinklers. Nurses and other medical staff in the emergency room ran out after crying out fire. This indicated they had little or no training on how to fight a fire and help evacuate patients. No doubt this lack of fire prevention measures and a quick repose to emergencies must have led to mass casualties.

Loopholes in the fire-prevention and firefighting regulations are also blamed for the tragedy. The government has toughened the regulations since 2014 when a fire killed 21 people in a nursing home in Jangseong, South Jeolla Province. But the stricter rules are only applied to general hospitals, mental hospitals and nursing homes, of which their floor space is more than 1,000 square meters.

Technically, Sejong Hospital has no obligation to equip its building with sprinklers and other firefighting devices because its floor space totals 224.69 square meters. The hospital building is classified the same as a commercial building. It is nonsense for this hospital structure with an emergency room and an intensive care unit to fall under such loose classification.

One fire after another has demonstrated the country has changed little since the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry which claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island. Right after the shipwreck, then-President Park Geun-hye vowed to strengthen safety regulations and root out corrupt ties among businesspeople, regulators and bureaucrats.

To the dismay of the public, Park only proved she made an empty promise. She was impeached over a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal early last year. She did nothing to ensure safe living for Koreans, let alone fight rampant corruption.

Her successor, President Moon Jae-in, has committed to make Korea safe, particularly since the Jecheon fire. However, the hospital blaze seems to snub his commitment and send a message that the country has a long way to go before learning a true lesson from a series of painful experiences. The question now is how many more people have to fall victim to shoddy construction, lack of safety standards and disregard for life.