PETALING JAYA: Better training to assess risky situations before jumping in could have saved the lives of the six brave and dedicated firemen who drowned during an attempted rescue at an old mining pool in Puchong, Selangor, said a water rescue specialist.
“The first step in conducting any rescue is a ‘scene size up’ where you consider all the factors and do a risk-benefit analysis. Was it a rescue or a body recovery?” explained Chan Yuen-Li, the regional director (South-East Asia) for Rescue 3 International, the world’s leading provider of technical rescue training.
“When no visible victim can be seen with their head above water, it’s clearly not an urgent operation to save someone’s life.”
A 17-year-old boy had fallen into the mining pool at around 5.50pm on Wednesday (Oct 3) while the six firemen perished at around 9pm.
“The sad reality is that this was a most likely a situation to recover a (dead) body. So there was really no reason to rush into what looks like a hastily planned rescue at night when the water level was rising.
“They could have waited till day time, or when water levels stabilised or when they had more equipment and personnel,” said Chan, while also addressing online discussions that the firemen should have had “better” equipment.
She emphasised that there is “no doubt about the bravery of the six firemen”.
“I absolutely honour their dedication to duty and my heart goes out to their families.”
However, it is her “fervent wish that from their sacrifice”, Malaysia will learn the lessons and look into possible weaknesses of rescue training.
“This is so that we can not only produce people with great heart, but also with wide knowledge, strong judgement and critical thinking skills,” said Chan, who is also the managing director of Nomad Adventure.
Apart from a better risk assessment, two other crucial factors could have saved the firemen’s lives.
Firstly, how dangerous low dams or weirs are, and secondly, the golden rule of never tying a rope around a rescuer.
Chan, who has been a swift water rescue instructor since 2008, explained that, from a purported video of the incident circulating online, the six firemen were verbally told to go towards the low dam (weir) and were even being pulled into it on purpose by rescuers upstream.
She said that if the video is a genuine depiction of the rescue, then it is a no-no because among rescue trainers, it is well known that a low dam is one of the most treacherous man-made hazards in moving water.
This is because they create uniform recirculating currents that trap swimmers (unlike a natural waterfall, where the current is broken up by rocks).
“So even though the water drop is not very high, it’s a total uniform flow across the channel. Once you are caught in such recirculating water, it’s very hard to get out, and you are also trapped by the channel’s banks at the side,” explained Chan, who added that she covers this topic in every one of the swift water rescue courses she has taught in Malaysia.
She said the fact that the six firemen failed to identify this low dam hazard suggests a gap or shortfall in their training.
As such, she “respectfully disagreed” with the statement by the Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister, Datuk Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad, today (Oct 6) that it was “a one in a million situation beyond anyone’s control.”
Chan also explained that there are 15 well-documented golden rules for swift water rescue, and one of them is: never tie a rope around a rescuer.
On Friday (Oct 5) the Fire and Rescue Department’s director-general Mohammad Hamdan Wahid said that the rescue operation had followed standard operating procedure (SOP).
“It was an accident following difficulties encountered by the personnel during the challenging rescue situation,” he told the media after extending his condolences to the affected families.
“Strategy-wise, the operation was in line with the SOP. There is a flowing stream of water from the floodgate to control water at the pool and the rescue operation took place at the foot of the flowing stream.
“One of the firemen slipped and fell with the others while they were performing the human chain sweeping with ropes and buoys.
“The water was not deep but the undercurrents were strong due to the rain earlier,” Hamdan said, adding that the department would conduct a thorough investigation.
However, for Chan, this actually showed why the “golden rule” of not tying a rope around a rescuer should have been followed because it looked like when one of them slipped, he dragged the others in.
“This tragedy is going to be a worldwide case study that highlights what can go wrong when rescuers are tied to a rope,” she said.
A proper risk assessment would have suggested that the firemen make “the hardest decision” to cancel or postpone the rescue.
“It may seem like a harsh decision to make, but rescuers have to think logically not emotionally, that’s part of the training,” said Chan, who is also a former journalist at The Star.
She recalled that she was once in a course with two fire chiefs from the Philippines, who wanted to learn how to save people in typhoon disasters.
They failed one test, because they were too gung ho and just wanted to jump in to do the rescue, even though it was too risky and could endanger the rest of crew.
“That was a powerful lesson for me, that sometimes you just have to say no.”
She explained that even if the victim could be seen, the firemen should still not have gone in for a “water contact” rescue at the low dam.
Instead, given the dangers, they should have done an “above water” rescue.
“They could have rigged ropes to pluck the person out, thrown a float attached to a rope from downstream, and then pulled him out of the swirling water.
Another common method, she said, is to use inflated fire hoses, float it to the victim, snag him and then pull him out.
In another report, Hamdan had also explained that the six firemen received centralised training at the Terengganu Safety Training Centre (TSTC).
But for Chan, she said she herself had conducted a swift water rescue course for firemen before, and from what she knew about the training system, several questions remain.
One of these is that while they may have been drilled in certain skills in a centralised training site, were they trained to use those skills in real-world scenarios?
She explained that at a Rescue 3 International conference in the United States, various people shared their best practices from around the world.
“In the USA, the trainers go around to different fire departments all over the country and work with what resources they have (which may be limited), and identify the local hazards. This is because a rescue in Alaska is different from rescue in Florida.”
“Local knowledge is a strength. So rescuers in the USA will identify local danger spots where say, homeless kids may jump into the water.
“They go out to recce (survey) and identify danger spots, and prepare rescue plans. For example, where they can rig their rescue ropes at both high and low water levels,
“This was shared in a talk by the LA (Los Angeles) fire department,” said Chan, adding that the training also included preparing a backup Plan B in case Plan A goes wrong.
Hamdan had also admitted that the mining pool was meant for irrigation management and access to it should have been curtailed.
Chan said this is not a matter of “glorifying” what foreigners do, but learning from best practices around the world.
“In the my first rescue training in the early 1990s, this Australian guy told us about a case where several firemen saw a lifejacket going round and round in a low dam.
“Thinking that the victim was there, they went into the water. But several of them also drowned. This has happened before and we should learn from experiences overseas.”
She underlined that the current training for Malaysian firemen is commendable because the firemen were courageous and dedicated to their duty and had a strong spirit of service.
“They deserve to be honoured for this,” emphasised Chan.
“However to ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain, we should review how effective their training was in terms of building the thinking skills necessary for risk assessment, advance planning, judgment of situations and resource management. In short, all the skills necessary to manage a rescue.
“This is one of the worst disasters the country’s emergency services have ever experienced and it has attracted worldwide attention and national mourning,” said Chan.
“I very much appreciate the director general (of the Fire and Rescue Services Department) is willing to look into improving weaknesses in the system. That is responsible leadership.
“The best way to honour the sacrifice of the six brave firemen is to openly and neutrally review all the factors that contributed to these rescuers becoming victims themselves.”
It’s a tragedy beyond anyone’s control