Monday, January 31, 2011

Singapore Armed Forces Training Safety Audit: SAF Deaths from 2001 to 2010

(This is the first of a two part instalment. Part 2 will examine accident trends from 2001 to 2010 ranked by Service and trigger points for SAF training halts.)

Achieving zero training fatalities in a year is well within the reach of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

The SAF had a fatality-free year in 2010. This record is unprecedented and remarkable in view of the high tempo of training activities and operational deployments in Singapore and abroad.

Anyone who thinks the record year for training safety is not a big deal should mull over SAF death statistics since 1967. In every year since universal conscription began, at least one Singaporean family has mourned the loss of its son or daughter.

The year 2010 broke the trend, giving the SAF its safest year in 43 years.

Alas, the 401-day fatality-free window from November 2009 closed early last Friday when signal operator Lance Corporal Wee Yong Choon Eugin was killed by a reversing Unimog.

In a statement, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said LCP Wee was about to unload stores from the back of the truck when it reversed into him.

Going by accident statistics, three more SAF servicemen could die in training accidents before the year is over.

Media reports on LCP Wee's death make for sorry reading because one wonders if the SAF has really learned the lesson from 3 July 2009 when Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit was killed by a reversing Land Rover.

It also raises a poser whether the decision to outsource training of Singapore Army drivers is a wise one. Have standards been maintained? Are the cost savings worth the lives lost?

Is is troubling to see the SAF - an organisation that prides itself as a Learning Army - relearn lessons from the past and reopen old wounds in families that have grieved for their lost sons/daughters. I know of a father who tells me he cries whenever he reads about SAF training deaths because the news will trigger a flood of memories of his lost son. I am sure he isn't alone.

One argument states that the best processes and systems in the world, which the SAF purportedly possesses, cannot hedge against human error or complacency. That is true.

But what is command guidance and higher leadership all about if not to guide and remind errant servicemen of their obligation to training safety, and preempt situations where SAF servicemen might take risks or flirt with danger?

If human error is at fault, so too is higher leadership in LCP Wee's C4I battalion for gross failure to remind and reinforce safety messages.

I can see where the official MINDEF/SAF investigation will lead to. Going by established procedure, the Wee family is likely to come under close scrutiny when they go to Jurong Camp to collect his belongings. Reports are likely to be submitted by the Special Investigation Branch, with tell tale signs of anger or aggression by the Wees jotted down in painstaking detail.

The banner year for SAF training safety was not without incident as we had several near misses that could have had catastrophic consequences.

If that Thai farmer had used shells with a bigger gauge than birdshot, he would have blown the head off an SAF Commando.

If Redhawk 69 was several flight levels higher, the Apache attack helicopter's off engine autorotation might have had disastrous results.

If the group of Officer Cadets had huddled a tad closer to the thunderbolt on that Marsiling Hill, six mums would have lost their sons.

There were big near misses in previous years too, including one said to have involved a submarine. If you know, you know.

One would hope MINDEF/SAF has paid heed to these near misses.

To be sure, even if SAF servicemen are 100 per cent safety conscious, elements such as the weather (aka Acts of God) and mechanical issues make training safety a constant challenge.

In the job I am in, probability and statistics play a key role in the business. This is why I felt worried for the SAF the longer its fatality-free record stretched in 2010. Sooner or later, the odds would catch up. And they finally have.

The record of SAF deaths for ten years between 2001 and 2010 is a pottered record of safety lapses and human failure in one of the most modern armed forces in Southeast Asia.

In the decade just past, 42 servicemen and women died serving their country.

Friday proved the deadliest day for the SAF. Why? I have no ready answer. From 2001 to 2010, 14 SAF servicemen died on a Friday. Could the promise of a weekend out of camp make SAF personnel let their guard down on the last day of a work week? By a cruel twist of fate, the deaths due to reversing vehicles both took place on a Friday.

After Fatal Friday, the second deadliest day was Wednesday. The mid-week menace claimed nine lives during the period.

As Saturday is book out day for the majority of SAF personnel, you probably will not be surprised by its record as the safest day last decade. Naval rating LCP Mar Teng Fong, 20, was the only servicemen to die on a Saturday although technically speaking, he died in hospital from injuries sustained the previous Wednesday aboard his tank landing ship.

June proved the deadliest month with eight deaths from 2001 to 2010 while May came a close second with seven fatalities. The safest months? February, March, August and December were tied with one death each during the past decade.

As January rolls into February, I urge all ranks to mull over safety issues and keep this uppermost in their minds.

SAF commanders especially must step up and take the lead in keeping safety awareness strong.

The record of SAF training deaths is a file I have not touched for more than a year, until last Friday. With safety a watchword, I am hopeful the file can stay dormant for as long as possible.

RIP LCP Eugin Wee.


Anonymous said...

Accidents happen. Many are preventable but human error and lapses occur. There are many reasons why it could have happened.

But for now, it is presumptious and incorrect to make a sweeping statement such as this that the leadership did not emphasise on safety. It is also deliberate on your part to suggest that the outcome is already pre-determined...that a scapegoat would be found. Have you ever thought about what has been done and is going on in the unit by the commanders and men of the late LCP Eugin? You think there is no sense of loss on their part? And do you know how the family is taking this and approaching their loss? You would be surprised if you knew...but you don't, and to be honest, I don't think you really care.

How did the SAF manage to keep training safe in the past year? Was it for lack of emphases?

Near misses happen and given the tempo of training, I believe that the SAF is doing what it can. And they will continue to learn and try and keep training effective and safe.

David Boey said...

I take your point about the SAF CMC and have removed it.

re: The "don't really think you care" remark. Will respond to this later. Have errands to run before the morning shift swings in.


Anonymous said...

Re-reading the earlier post, I reckon that the "don't really think you care" bit isn't a really fair statement. I think you do, which is why you take pains to write these postings. But the point is that things are never so straightforward and sweeping statements and assessments without trying to find out more (not that it is easy to find out I would imagine) may be off the mark.

Abao said...

the mindef statement leaves much to be answered... should not comment too much until the investigations are complete, though i have have all the questions swimming in my head.