SCDF search and rescue crew ever ready for action

From left: Reporter Gracia Lee viewing an image of a "survivor" trapped under the debris of a collapsed structure; and negotiating a confined space to rescue the casualty; a rescue dog being unleashed to sniff out a trapped "survivor". Reporter Graci
Reporter Gracia Lee and other members of the media evacuating a “casualty” from the Leaning Tower, a three-storey structure tilted at an 18-degree angle to simulate a partially collapsed building.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM
From left: Reporter Gracia Lee viewing an image of a "survivor" trapped under the debris of a collapsed structure; and negotiating a confined space to rescue the casualty; a rescue dog being unleashed to sniff out a trapped "survivor". Reporter Graci
Reporter Gracia Lee viewing an image of a “survivor” trapped under the debris of a collapsed structure.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM
From left: Reporter Gracia Lee viewing an image of a "survivor" trapped under the debris of a collapsed structure; and negotiating a confined space to rescue the casualty; a rescue dog being unleashed to sniff out a trapped "survivor". Reporter Graci
Gracia Lee negotiating a confined space to rescue a 'casualty'.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM

Training facility helps keep skills of elite team under SCDF sharp

The frequency of earthquakes around the region means Singapore's Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Dart) is sometimes called on to help with rescue efforts, so the need to maintain the skills for such work is critical.

Having to work in partially collapsed buildings, crawl through tight spaces and drill through slabs of concrete to reach survivors buried in the rubble are dangerous undertakings with little margin for error.

Staying sharp for such operations is vital for the Dart crew, an elite 92-man team under the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) that stands ready to carry out such urban search and rescue operations.

The Straits Times experienced just how hard it is to develop and maintain those skills when participating in an exercise at the SCDF's urban search and rescue training facility in the Home Team Tactical Centre in Mandai Quarry Road.

The SCDF has been deployed 17 times since 1990 on overseas missions as part of Operation Lionheart, which provides urban search and rescue and humanitarian relief assistance to countries affected by major disasters. The last deployment was after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

The urban search and rescue facility is mainly used by Dart members during their 10-week training course, but is also used by men doing national service in rescue battalions and for rescue teams from other countries.

The first segment of the exercise last week was staged at the Leaning Tower, a three-storey structure tilted at an 18-degree angle to simulate a partially collapsed building.

Led by Sergeant 3 Muhammad Naufal Azlin, a team of four reporters donned protective suits and climbed to the top floor to rescue a "casualty". For us, this was a 25kg dummy, but Dart members handle dummies more than three times heavier.

Being in the tilted building was disorienting and dizzying, and it was tough not to stumble about as we struggled to regain our bearings.

Rescuers who have not experienced being in such a building may feel too dizzy or nauseous to continue the rescue operation, said Dart Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Chew Keng Tok.


A rescue dog being released to sniff out a trapped 'survivor'. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Training in the tower helps them get accustomed to the disorientation and learn methods - such as focusing on the ground instead of looking at the surroundings - to cope so they are better prepared, he added.

In the second segment, our team had to extricate another "casualty" trapped in a tunnel under a large pile of rubble.

Two rescue dogs trained to track human scent were first deployed to narrow down the location of any casualties. Wireless seismic devices and a video camera probe were then used to pinpoint the exact spot.

 
 

Once this was established, we crawled through the tunnel with about 60kg of equipment - including a 4kg rebar cutter, a 10kg concrete drill, blankets and a stretcher.

For the next half hour, we took turns to drill through a 10cm-thick concrete slab to get to the casualty on the other side.

We were later told that the concrete slab was of a "lower grade", a much easier obstacle compared with the 20cm-thick slabs of higher quality, complete with two layers of reinforcement bars, that Dart members have to drill through in training. That process can take up to several hours.

The entire exercise, which had been significantly scaled down from usual training conditions, was a strenuous affair that left us panting and exhausted.

The Home Team Tactical Centre, which was opened in 2015, also has a chemical hub that provides training for hazardous material (HazMat) incidents, and a ship firefighting training facility.

Captain Kelvin Koh, a Dart platoon commander, said the urban search and rescue facility is "one of the most realistic experiences" that can be provided for members before they are deployed overseas.

"Urban search and rescue is not something that we do day-to-day. But with the Home Team Tactical Centre... we can come here and set a realistic training scenario that covers the full urban search and rescue process in a controlled and safe environment."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2018, with the headline 'Search and rescue crew ever ready for action'. Print Edition | Subscribe