This week, a volunteer firefighter lost his life battling the flames at a massive plastic factory fire.
He was one of many volunteers that showed up to fight the fire that day. It is a proud tradition in Thailand for volunteers to step up to the plate and help build a better society.
We have volunteer firefighters all over the country including volunteer brigades that fight forest fires that rage in the north and south. We have volunteer medics who stay awake all night and respond to car crashes and medical emergencies in their makeshift ambulances.
When it comes to COVID-19, we have volunteer medical groups that help pass the message from the Ministry Of Public Health and help monitor the spread of the virus. While many Thai people look on these volunteers with a hint of pride, their existence is also something that we should all be worried about.
Now don’t get me wrong, all these volunteers are brave people doing their part to better the society that they live in. They should be commended and protected and given all the respect that they deserve.
But the reason these volunteers exist is because the government’s policies don’t extend far enough.
If you look at developed countries around the world, emergency first responders are professionals that are trained, equipped, and given all the support the government can give.
When they attack on the World trade Center happened on September 11, the firefighters, police officers, and ambulance crews were all well trained first responders that were paid by the state. They were coordinated and they saved countless lives.
When an emergency happens in Thailand, through no fault of their own, the first responders are usually a hodgepodge of volunteers and untrained personal. The state sees no reason to invest money into the equipment, the training, and the logistics needed to have a first class emergency response team because they can just rely on these volunteers.
As a result and as this week shows, many problems can arise from the current arrangement. Not only are the volunteers not paid, they are poorly equipped, and they risk their lives in a system that takes advantage of their good intent.
If the government were serious about supporting these volunteers, the state must hire them and make them a professional force with all the backing of the national government.
The government must also invest in an emergency response coordination center and the training of personnel for it. The expertise that the government has shown over the past week was embarrassing to say the least.
We cannot have scenes where the Prime Minister is ordering that artificial rain be created to fight a chemical fire because that kind of stupidity is shameful.
Thailand must transition from a country that relies on brave volunteers to a country that is proud of a professional first response unit.
Saving lives and responding to disaster cannot be a task left to amateurs anymore – not because they lack the bravery or agency of a professional force – but because first responders need to be given the support of the state.