Disaster-relief vending machines on the rise

JAPAN - Vending machines designed to help people survive disasters through such services as providing beverages for free and displaying emergency bulletins have been increasing since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

The trend is a combination of local municipalities' need to increase their emergency stockpiles at lower costs and the desire among beverage makers to enhance their corporate image through social contributions, according to observers.

Meanwhile, experts have pointed out that vending machines weighing several hundred kilograms can fall over and kill people in massive disasters such as a much-feared Nankai Trough earthquake. An industry-related body is taking measures to prevent such accidents.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit on March 11, 2011, Coca-Cola Japan Co. took advantage of the remote control functions on about 400 disaster-relief vending machines, equipped with batteries for backup, in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other locations.

The Tokyo-headquartered company offered more than 88,000 of its beverages for free to people who had difficulty returning home in the aftermath of the disaster.

The company said it later received words of gratitude such as, "It was nice to get a hot drink for free in such a cold situation."

The number of such disaster-relief vending machines jumped to about 8,000 as of the end of July from about 6,000 before the 2011 disaster. Coca-Cola plans to further increase the number.

Mikuni Coca-Cola Bottling Co., based in Okegawa, Saitama Prefecture, installed the nation's first disaster-relief vending machine at the Ageo municipal government office in the prefecture in March 2003.

The practice has since spread to other beverage makers. In many cases, the machines are installed at schools and gymnasiums used as evacuation centers, based on disaster assistance agreements between local governments and beverage makers.

Efforts to increase such vending machines to provide beverages for free or provide important information during disasters have been steadily expanding.

Osaka-based Suntory Holdings Ltd. developed a vending machine that can operate on a built-in battery during power outages and provide drinks for free. The company had about 4,200 of them installed nationwide as of the end of 2010, but more than doubled the number to about 10,000 as of June 30 this year.

Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, a town hit hard by the 2011 quake, began research and development last December on a camera-equipped vending machine in collaboration with NTT Docomo, headquartered in Tokyo, and DyDo Drinco Inc. in Osaka.

When a quake occurs, the machine sends camera images illustrating the situation there via a telecommunications line and provides disaster information on its electronic display panel. A test demonstration is scheduled within this fiscal year.

"We hope to provide information on evacuation sites to minimize the number of earthquake and tsunami victims," said an Otsuchi town official.

Yoshiteru Murosaki, a professor emeritus at Kobe University and expert on urban planning for disaster mitigation, said: "Disaster-relief vending machines are useful not only for stockpiling beverages, but also for raising the disaster-prevention awareness of residents who see the machines regularly. Companies and local governments should cooperate to keep installing more machines."

Accident prevention lectures

A working group of the government's Central Disaster Management Council released in August last year its estimate that up to 800 people may be crushed to death by vending machines and concrete walls if a massive Nankai Trough earthquake were to hit.

To prevent such secondary disasters, the Tokyo-based Japan Softdrink Vending Machine Council, an organisation comprising of groups in the soft drink industry, established in 2008 its own voluntary standards for installing vending machines, which are stricter than those outlined in the Japanese Industrial Standards.

The council has been holding lectures and a certification exam on installation for those who install machines every year since fiscal 2010.

"By sharing knowledge on quake-proofing vending machines within the industry, we can do our share to help," a council official said.