Tokyo Firefighters Visit Mill Valley for Ideas Exchange

Pictured from left: Mill Valley Fire Battalion Chief Michael St. John, Tokyo Fire Department Sgt. Yuya Fujita, Capt. Airo Sasaki, Capt. Reiko Kowaguchi, Emergency Preparedness Commissioner Ron Vidal and Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch.


The Tokyo Fire Department is the largest urban fire department in the world, with more than 18,000 firefighters serving in 81 fire stations across the prefecture. 

When some of its top brass sought destinations for a recent United States trip to glean best practices on issues like disaster response and volunteer programs, they chose the Mill Valley Fire Department, an agency that is its antithesis in size and scope.

They did so because Mill Valley has set the standard for disaster preparedness efforts and its volunteer firefighter program, according to Tokyo Fire Department Sgt. Yuya Fujita, who was joined in his visit by Capt. Airo Sasaki and Capt. Reiko Kowaguchi. 

The Mill Valley Fire Department really connects with the larger community, and we really appreciated how everything is so interconnected there,” Fujita said, noting the strong ties in Marin between local and regional agencies. “They can prepare for any disaster because they are all together.”

Despite its small size, Mill Valley’s reputation has long been held in high regard: In 2011, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury hailed Mill Valley as the model for all municipalities in the County to use in their disaster preparedness efforts. The Tokyo firefighters were directed to Mill Valley by Heather Schafer, the CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council

The Tokyo Fire Department’s leadership team focused primarily on suburban environments in its visit late last month, checking in with departments in suburban Los Angeles, Portland and Houston, among others. In connecting with Mill Valley, they did so specifically to learn about its organization across multiple jurisdictions for disaster response, as well as its recruitment and retention strategies for its volunteer firefighter program.

Tokyo has as many as 25,000 volunteer firefighters in its program, a number that Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch called “staggering.” Because of that massive size, it’s unwieldy to manage and difficult to retain volunteers, particularly as they age.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from – you face the same obstacles and challenges,” Welch added.

The Tokyo delegation came away deeply impressed by the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in Mill Valley and throughout Marin, Fujita said. CERT is a national program that trains citizens to help multiply the resources that may be needed in a disaster or emergency.

Mill Valley’s CERT is so organized and it really works,” Fujita said. “We hope to get more people here involved in the CERT program in Tokyo. That will greatly help our preparedness for earthquakes and other disasters.”

Mill Valley Battalion Chief Michael St. John served as the primary emissary with the Tokyo delegation.

It was a great educational experience, learning about the Tokyo Prefecture and the scope of the program and the issues they deal with,” St. John said. “I was extremely impressed by the caliber of the delegation they sent.”“They saw a lot of value in the CERT program and how we organize ourselves around disasters,” St. John added. “And they were very surprised and appreciative of how integrated we are across departments in terms of law enforcement and the different local, county and state agencies.”

The group also met with Welch, Marin County CERT Coordinator Maggie Lang, Mill Valley Emergency Preparedness Commissioner Ron Vidal and an array of Mill Valley fire personnel. They also took a tour of the County’s Emergency Operations Center in San Rafael, an example of the deep-seated inter-agency ties in Marin.

We really appreciated that we could meet so many amazing citizens and firefighters,” Fujita said. “It was better than we ever could have expected. And it was perfectly arranged by Michael St. John and the Mill Valley Fire Department. We hope to connect again in Tokyo.”