Thai cave rescuers share lessons on fast and safe operation at First Responders symposium

A photo taken on July 11, 2018, shows rescuers holding an evacuated junior football team member during rescue operations for the team and their coach at Tham Luang cave in Thailand's Chiang Rai province. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - The first responders to last year's flooding of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand, had one goal in mind: rescuing the stranded members of the junior soccer team and bringing them out alive.

The responders achieved their goal, rescuing all 12 members of the soccer team, aged 11 to 16, and their coach who were trapped after they sought shelter from heavy rains in a cave on June 23 last year.

The rescue had been complicated by the harsh weather conditions, with almost zero visibility and heavy rains continuing to flood the cave.

As the world watched, the rescue team raced against time and on July 10, all 13 had been brought to safety.

But the operation might have been less arduous if the team were better prepared, and a network of first responders trained in such rescues were able to spring into action without delay, said the two men in charge of the rescue.

Then governor of Chiang Rai province, Mr Narongsak Osottanakorn, who commanded the complex rescue mission, and Mr Lerpong Suansang, chief of the search and rescue unit at Thailand's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, were speaking at the inaugural First Responders Safety and Performance Symposium on Thursday (Nov 21).

The event is a new platform where first responders, researchers, and industry professionals can connect to share knowledge on safety and improve their rescue capabilities.

It was organised by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), in partnership with the Temasek Foundation and the Department of Physiology in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore.

There were 320 participants, including guests from Australia, Greece, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Switzerland, Thailand and Vietnam at the symposium at Max Atria @ Singapore Expo.

Mr Lerpong said of the cave rescue: "If we could not bring the best team in, the situation would have turned more dangerous very fast."

"We had to make life-and-death decisions, as the conditions in the cave were getting worse over time, with us having no choice but to pump the water out to prevent it from flooding and trapping the boys further," he said.

Mr Narongsak told The Straits Times that oxygen levels were dipping fast in the cave where the team was trapped.

If the rescue process had dragged on further, many of them would have passed out and unable to muster the strength to get out of the cave.

Since the incident, the Thai government has ordered all provinces to take measures to better prepare for a wide-ranging variety of emergencies, from earthquakes to cave rescues.

This includes detailed preparations and practices in the event of a crisis, he added.

"With more preparation, first responders can get to the scene with all the equipment they need, in time."

"Internationally, Asean countries and beyond can also work together, and share our knowledge to make rescues safer and smoother," Mr Narongsak said.

At the symposium, SCDF Commissioner Eric Yap also called on more people to learn about handling emergencies and basic life-saving skills, as the role of first responder might fall on members of the community before emergency responders arrive at the scene.

"The responsibility of first response has to be shared with workplace safety professionals, volunteer groups and community members who are closest to the incident," Mr Yap said.

"A time delay could mean a rapid deterioration of the situation, and worse, the loss of many more lives."

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