In sync when handling the unexpected

The unexpectedness and scale of the problems caused by last week's oil spill in the Orchard area would have unnerved Singaporeans, although the shopping-belt heart of the city had seen worse - when hit by flash floods over four years ago. Tourists visiting the iconic area, too, would have wondered how such a massive traffic snarl could form in a city which generally runs like clockwork. The 13-hour closure of the south-bound side of Paterson Road, which resulted in widespread congestion for much of Thursday, became a matter of public consternation as commuters were delayed on their way to work and school. It was quite an experience for many who were caught unawares. That is especially true for the couple who had a fortuitous escape when their motorbike skidded on the oil patch in the early aftermath of the spill.

It is during such exigencies that one values the coordinated responses of agencies called upon to handle serious accidents. There were several dimensions to the incident which needed the expertise of different specialists. The spilt oil could have been corrosive or flammable, and the consequences could have been much worse than the inconvenience caused to motorists, substantial though it was.

Closing the affected stretch of the road was a necessary security measure as Singapore Civil Defence Force emergency services worked to wash off the oil. The National Environment Agency then took over to sweep away the oily residue, but the road was still unsafe. That required the resurfacing of the road, involving a decision by the Land Transport Authority. Along with the police, these agencies had to respond quickly but also keep in mind the absolute need to ensure that safety standards had been met.

The incident would serve a larger purpose if agencies were to treat it as a case study to see how response mechanisms could be improved, particularly if a spill occurs on a much larger scale. Communication efforts could be expedited and stepped up to keep motorists away from an affected area. One suggestion is the need to spread the news about the congestion via different channels, suggest rail alternatives and explain factors contributing to the delay in reopening the route. Meanwhile, of course, the causes of the accident should be investigated thoroughly, appropriate sanctions applied and preventive measures taken.

Accidents can surface in all forms despite the best precautions. What matters is how agencies pool resources to meet challenges. Citizens, who are generally proud of their urban environment, should also rally together to ease the plight or inconvenience of those affected. Rising jointly to the occasion attests to their maturity as a people.