There are 860,000 of them up and down Japan. By day they are salarymen, housewives, grocers and shopkeepers; out of hours they are arranged in 2,200 units around the country and have been known to deliver aid on motorbikes and travel on jet-skis through flooded areas. They are the Shobodanin: volunteer firefighters in the shape of a community force that backs up Japan’s regular fire brigade. They do anything from checking on elderly residents to wielding a fire hose.
The Shobodan is an essential force. It outnumbers the corps of paid firefighters (of whom there are 160,000) and can do many less specialised duties, freeing up the professionals to tackle fires. “The duty of a Shobodan is community disaster prevention,” says Masanori Kosaka, 63, who heads up the 7th Unit Shobodan of Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. “Even if it is the middle of the night we will gather to help the community. We participate in town council meetings and disaster drills, as well as helping out at summer festivals, where many get injured or get heatstroke.”
By law the Shobodan are treated as part-time public servants; Kosaka has been one for 38 years. His unit has 23 members, including six women, aged between 35 and 72. “Anyone who is healthy and over the age of 18 can join,” he says. His unit is training for a Shobodan tournament; entrants from the neighbourhood are tested for their speed, accuracy, agility and synchronised movement of equipment.
Overall numbers of Shobodanin are decreasing but the number of women volunteers, now 23,000, is rising. Kosaka is on the lookout for new recruits. “Being a member of the Shobodan requires time and many people prioritise family over volunteering. We have been trying to gather more people.” But he has no plans to retire: “I joined because I love this community and I intend on being part of the Shobodan while I’m still healthy.”
Dotted along the entirety of Sweden’s coastline, which is the longest in Europe, are stations for the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS). This volunteer force of 2,100 handles 70 per cent of all sea rescues in the country and the biggest of 69 stations is in Stockholm, surrounded by a beautiful but potentially dangerous archipelago. Last year the capital’s SSRS teams set out on almost 600 rescue missions, most of them in the high season from May to August.
A typical SSRS team consists of a captain and a crew of one or two. However, everything depends on who’s available and on monocle’s visit there are three men and a rescue dog called Salt on board – and everyone’s title (apart from Salt, despite his protestations) is “captain”. Ranking order, however, doesn’t seem to be a big issue. Sven-Erik Carlström, Henrik Wetzenstein and Rikard Kullenberg chat and joke as they steer the boat from Nybroviken in central Stockholm towards the archipelago, which is notoriously difficult to navigate. On sunny days the work is a breeze but circumstances can change in a heartbeat; a motor breakdown or an unexpected storm can lead to life-threatening situations very quickly.
“A big part of our work is finding missing people in the archipelago,” says Kullenberg. “The worst is when the situation is unclear: when you arrive to find a boat that’s empty or on fire and you don’t know where the passengers are.” Adds Wetzenstein: “And when children are involved – that’s when your adrenaline really starts pumping.”
Founded in 1907, the service is funded entirely by membership fees and donations; in 2015 these amounted to SEK155m (€17m). Volunteers come from all walks of life: on this particular boat there is a retired carpenter, an IT salesman and a lawyer. The Stockholm rescue force has three custom-made boats and two water jets or “rescue runners”, ready to depart within 15 minutes day or night and in any weather. Crews live close to the stations and each of the city’s 70 to 80 volunteers puts in a minimum of 10 weeks a year (some twice that amount).
What makes a person want to spend so much time doing voluntary work? “For most people it’s simply a strong desire to help,” says Carlström, who got involved six years ago after he ended up in an emergency and was helped by the ssrs. Wetzenstein and Kullenberg, meanwhile, were inspired to sign up having spent a lot of time at sea during their childhoods. “As a little boy I often met the sea rescuers in the archipelago – and for me, they were the heroes of the sea,” says Kullenberg. “I always wanted to join and so when the timing was right, I did.”
Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom (MDA) has all the trappings of a state institution. It has its own emergency phone number, runs the country’s blood banks and treats nearly 680,000 people a year. Opinion surveys list it as among the country’s most loved public bodies. All this, however, is done with a paid staff of just 1,850, dwarfed by a volunteer body of nearly 15,000.
“MDA has a very high public profile in Israel,” says Yoni Yagodovsky, the director of international relations and fundraising. He began volunteering with mda 40 years ago and still keeps a resuscitation kit in his car – as do the majority of the service’s veterans.
Founded in 1930 in Tel Aviv and modelled on the Red Cross, MDA was formally recognised as Israel’s emergency service in 1950 by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It operates more than 1,100 emergency vehicles, including 50 armoured ambulances and two helicopters equipped with life-support technology. There are 172 motorbikes for urban areas; seven dune buggies can evacuate victims from more complex locations.
In Jerusalem, mda is a powerful symbol. In a city that is regarded as the capital under Israeli law (but is in reality deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines) ultra-orthodox Jews mix with secular volunteers, while Palestinian citizens of Israel work alongside settlers.
Mahran Gaber, 22, from the Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, says that MDA’s make-up “is really special and unique”. “I volunteer with people who are orthodox Jews and Arabs,” he adds. “But when I am in the ambulance there are no differences between us; there is no discrimination. We are all treated exactly the same.”
MDA also serves Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, an arrangement that some staff acknowledge is “politically problematic”. But Yogadovsky says that the city’s mda station takes violence in its stride. “There is friction between human beings; it’s part of our nature. But people who live together and work together know how to get along.”