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2014 City Happiness Survey

Is Your City Safe?


Is Your City Safe?


According to City Safety Index established by CommonWealth, as many as 14 of the 22 municipalities in Taiwan emerged as "high risk" places. What can their residents do to protect themselves?



Is Your City Safe?

By Jung-hsin Ho, Kwangyin Liu, Pei-yi Jiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 555 )

The underground pipeline explosions in southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung City July 31 and gas line blast in northern Taiwan's New Taipei City Aug. 15 shocked people around Taiwan. Many began questioning the safety of the areas in which they work and play, fearful that it is only a matter of time before the next disaster takes place.

"Following the explosions, we received more than 20 emergency phone calls per day from concerned citizens," said Hsu Li-ming, head of Kaohsiung City Government's Research, Development and Evaluation Commission. "One person alerted the fire brigade when they saw smoke billowing from a sewer next to a hotel. When firefighters rushed to the scene, they discovered it was only steam from hot water."

Nevertheless, authorities remain on alert and are responding to every tip from the public about possible safety issues. The tragic explosion in Kaohsiung, which claimed 31 lives and left more than 300 injured, has raised awareness about the potential risks posed by pipelines. Yet public safety involves more than pipelines buried underneath streets and buildings. How can residents assess the safety of their residences? How can administrators improve the safety of the living environment?

CommonWealth Magazine's 2014 City Happiness Survey focuses on municipal safety. It aims to monitor the safety of the living environment, spurring the public and the government to squarely face potential safety risks in each of the country's 22 cities and counties.

Four municipalities fail safety test

Tang Yun-ming, associate professor at Ming Chuan University's Department of Security Management and Social Work, is one of a handful of disaster experts possessing academic expertise and extensive practical experience.

A former Taichung County Fire Department head, Tang served as disaster response coordinator following the Sept. 21, 1999, magnitude-7.3 Jiji earthquake in Nantou County, central Taiwan. He also contributed to the drafting of the Disaster Prevention and Response Act and advocated the Public Safety Management White Paper highlighting 16 potential public safety risks in Taiwan.

"After the Jiji temblor, I pointed out that the greatest threat to Taiwan comes not from military conflict, but natural and manmade disasters. Yet no one has a sense of crisis or risk, they believe it is bad luck to talk about these issues," Tang said. "Fortunately, the act required related central government agencies to formulate national disaster prevention and response plans. Local governments also hammered out disaster prevention and response plans in cooperation with academic institutions."

In conjunction with Tang, CommonWealth Magazine established 30 indicators in seven safety categories: building safety, disaster prevention, disaster relief, fire safety, medical resources, public order and traffic safety.

The indicators are based on official figures from 2013 provided by the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Central Disaster Prevention and Response Council, Environment Protection Administration, Ministry of the Interior, National Police Agency, Construction and Planning Agency, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Education and National Audit Office.

Based on the total score of each municipality, CommonWealth Magazine produced its first ever Public Safety Risk Map for Taiwan's Municipalities. (See Table)

Only two municipalities qualify for a "low-risk" green light: Taipei and Chiayi cities, with four attracting a "high-risk" red light: Hsinchu County, Keelung City, Taichung City and Taitung County. The remainder vary between a "relatively high-risk" orange light, "relatively low-risk" light green light or "need for further attention" yellow light. Over 60 percent of municipalities reached a safety index score of less than 65 (orange or red light).

How safe is your city?

"Given every city faces the risk of natural disasters, it is imperative municipal disaster management capabilities are maintained at the highest levels," Tang said. "Unlike an earthquake or a typhoon, this is something that can be controlled."

According to Tang, in case of a major natural disaster, the central government must take the lead in coordinating rescue efforts as local governments are not able to shoulder such a responsibility. "Yet the latter must not shirk responsibility for major indicators pertaining to public safety in our lives."

Taipei City, which passed the safety test with a green light, leads the country on the back of good numbers for "public safety inspections of buildings," "fire and construction inspection passing rates", as well as "average service area per medical institution". Taipei citizens, however, have reason for concern when it comes to the "number of firefighters per 100,000 residents" and "average number of inspections per enterprise handling listed toxic chemical substances," both indicators scored lowest nationwide.

The other leader, Chiayi City, earned top scores in the "average number of people served per medical institutions," "number of medical practitioners per 10,000 people" or "number of hospital beds per 10,000 people." On the downside, however, the city has the second highest crime incidence islandwide.

Taichung--the only metropolis flashing a red light

Keelung City virtually brings up the rear in terms of "offender rate," "violent offender rate" as well as "liquefied petroleum gas fire safety inspection passing rate."

In Hsinchu County, the "medical practitioners per 10,000 people" is the lowest in Taiwan. At the same time, the county's "per capita expenses for police administration" are only slightly higher than low-ranking New Taipei City and Taoyuan County.

Taitung County gives reason for concern due to the "average service area per medical institution," "frequency of fires per 10,000 households," "fire fatality rate" and "offender rate."

In addition, Taichung—the only one of Taiwan's five special municipalities with a red light—brings up the rear for its poor record in "drunk driving deaths," "number of traffic accident deaths per 100,000 people," and "number of traffic accidents per day."

Wu Qi-rui, commander of Taichung's Traffic Police Corps, said Taichung boasts a vibrant economy but cannot compare with Greater Taipei when it comes to modern mass transit systems. "Most people commute by private car. At the same time, the city is dotted with construction sites for a bus rapid transit network and the Taichung mass rail transit system," Wu said. "Minor car accidents can easily happen in such congested road conditions"

Five types of regional compound disasters

Former Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan said Taiwan lacks professional rescue capabilities for compound disasters both on the central and local government levels. "Although we are better prepared than Japan to handle typhoons and flooding, much work remains to be done in bringing the country up to par in managing nuclear disasters and accidents in long highway tunnels," he said. "It took three years of work with the Ministry of Science and Technology to complete 3,835 disaster potential maps and ensure every village has a map showing potential hazards."

Lee's concerns are the same as those harbored by Taiwan's cities and counties. Based on their most recent disaster plans submitted to the central government, CommonWealth Magazine identified five types of compound disasters and at-risk regions: disasters caused by petrochemical raw materials and toxic chemical substances (Hsinchu City and County, Kaohsiung City, Taichung City, Yilan County and Yunlin City); high-tech factory disasters (Hsinchu City and County, New Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Taipei Cities); disasters in long highway tunnels (Hualien County, New Taipei City and Yilan County); mass rail transit system disasters (Kaohsiung, New Taipei and Taipei Cities); and nuclear plant disasters (Hsinchu City and County, Kaohsiung City, New Taipei City, Pingtung County, Taipei City, Taitung County, Taoyuan County and Yilan County).

Environmental safety up to every citizen

The survey's City Safety Index and a Public Safety Risk Map serve as reference and warning for local governments. They also send a clear message to local residents that an active community role must be taken in monitoring the safety of the living environment.

During the pipeline explosion in Kaohsiung, local residents demonstrated a strong ability for independent crisis management. Shin Chuei-ling, head of National Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Political Economy lives in the disaster area and witnessed peoples' reactions. "As soon as the blasts started, several hundred tenants from nearby high-rise apartments quickly evacuated to Labor Park north of the area. Although everyone was scared, the evacuation took place in an orderly fashion. No one pushed or screamed. Instead, people alerted each other to watch out for debris on the ground." she said. "These surprising scenes, given the circumstances, were not shown by the media."

Although Shin is not a staunch supporter of Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu, she said it makes sense that those living in the disaster-hit neighborhood have not criticized the local government. "It's because everyone understands that in such times we need to help each other through the crisis. This approach is actually a manifestation of civil society" She added that news reports of looting in the disaster area misrepresented the actions of the majority. "While such incidents cannot be avoided, only a very small number of such cases took place."

According to Tang, the civic-minded actions of Kaohsiung residents following the blasts are understandable and reflect Taiwan's experiences in recent years. "After promoting its program for intensified technological disaster prevention education at the local government level, the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction concluded that directly after a disaster has hit, the most dangerous areas can only be identified if disaster prevention has been firmly established in the affected communities," he said. "Therefore, the center established its 7:2:1 formula, which means 70 percent of disaster prevention rests on the shoulders of local residents, 20 percent requires a concerted effort between the government and the private sector and 10 percent depends on government power."

Several countries can serve as good models for Taiwan in upgrading its disaster prevention policies, according to Tang. "Singapore is most impressive. Disaster prevention has been written into law in the City-State, and is considered on par in importance with national defense," he said. The people are an important force in responding to disasters and minimizing impacts on society."

Tang and Lee recommend Taiwan study the example of Japan where disaster prevention drills have a long-standing tradition in local communities. "Such drills are essential for preventing major damage and losses in the event of a major disaster," they said. "Even the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has been studying Japan's experiences."

Innovative disaster management ideas are being mulled in many of Taiwan's municipalities. But in Pingtung County, Magistrate Tsao Chi-hung is making real progress with a cable TV flood monitoring system. Employing a closed-circuit network of 40 cameras, the real-time system is widely regarded as a pioneering example for community-based disaster prevention and a new way to assist local residents in monitoring the safety of their environment. It was established in the wake of Typhoon Morakot in 2009—one of the worst tropical storm to lash Taiwan in just over half a century.

According to Pingtung County Fire Department Chief Chen Chun-hung, the system has already proved worth its weight in gold. "During a recent typhoon, I joined Tsao in the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Center watching a live feed of waters approaching dangerous levels near a bridge," he said. "Over the protests of the township chief who insisted the situation was OK, Tsao ordered the police to seal off the bridge. Residents who watched the cable TV channel at home were all better informed about the flooding than the township chief, making it possible for them to join rescue efforts."

Communities have the Right to Know

Lee Ken-cheng, executive director of Citizen of the Earth in Taiwan said citizens need to do more than monitor the safety of the environment, they also need to make use of the community's right to know. The concept comes from the U.S. where it was enshrined in law under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.

"Aside from underground pipes, we also need to know what the factories in our neighborhood produce," he said. "What are their raw materials? What kind of emissions do their smoke stacks release into the air, into the water? What kind of waste do they generate? People should always be able to get on the internet and obtain information about the category and quantity of emissions, as well as the violation record of the company."

Lee believes local governments can only set up disaster response mechanisms if legal amendments and information disclosure are pushed forward. "Unless this happens, citizens will also not understand which risks they face," he said. "Government inspection capability and manpower has limits. By introducing such mechanisms, the public can gain a stronger monitoring role."

As long as the central government has not yet established a fully fledged disaster prevention agency, it is imperative that city and county governments improve their safety indices and the public shoulders its civic responsibility for community disaster prevention, Le added.

 "Is the county or city we live in safe or not?" The answer to that question is not just the government's business, it's also yours.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz