Firefighters' deaths in China building collapse prompt debate

The deaths of five firefighters during the New Year holiday in Northeast China have raised questions among the public about the level of professionalism among the country's firefighters.

The fire, which occurred on Friday afternoon at a ware-house in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, caused the collapse of the building that housed the warehouse eight hours after the fire began. The collapse killed the five firefighters and injured 13 other firefighters and a security guard.

All residents of the building and nearby had been safely evacuated, according to a statement from the local government. The cause of the accident was under investigation, the statement said.

The firefighters, who were between the ages of 18 and 22, were buried by debris while trying to extinguish the blaze, local authorities told Xinhua News Agency. The warehouse occupied the first three floors of the 11-story building; the other eight floors were residential.

The Ministry of Public Security has urged firefighting authorities nationwide to conduct thorough inspections to eliminate potential fire hazards.

"I think it was my cousin's duty to obey the order from his superior and run into the building to put out the fire," said a cousin of Zhang Xiaokai, one of the firefighters who was killed.

"However, I still want to know why he was ordered to go inside the warehouse (as there was nobody trapped). Why couldn't they stay outside the building and use the fire hose to put out the fire?" said the cousin, who declined to give his name.

The loss of the firefighters was met with respect and sympathy from the public, with many questioning whether a lack of professionalism was a major fact or in the heavy loss of lives in fires in China.

"Fighting fire relies more on experience and wisdom than on just being young and brave, "Zhang Hong, a commentator at China Central Television, said on his micro blog." In most developed countries, firefighting is a profession and firefighters do the job for a whole lifetime."

In China, most firefighters are part of the armed police forces, and when they retire after a few years' service, they are replaced by young armed police officers, resulting in a shortage of firefighters with rich experience, according to a report by Beijing News.

Many firefighters in China have not participated in a single fire-rescue operation during their two years' service in the armed police forces, Zhang said.

"Only when firefighting becomes a profession can the loss of lives be reduced. We should not let young people sacrifice their lives for us," he said.

In May of last year, two firefighters, age 23 and 20, died after falling from a high-rise building in Shanghai while trying to extinguish a fire in an apartment.

In 2003,20 firefighters were killed in Hengyang, Hunan province, when part of an eight-story building collapsed on them while they were trying to put out a fire.

Wang Ge contributed to this story.