Tuesday, March 15, 2011

25th anniversary of the Hotel New World disaster

Today's marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Hotel New World, a building structural failure that killed 33 people close to the heart of Singapore's city centre. Seventeen people trapped under the rubble were rescued.

Twenty five years ago, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) was inexperienced in urban search and rescue and British engineers digging underground train tunnels were brought in to probe the rubble of the collapsed six-storey hotel.

Today, the SCDF's range of core capabilities, readiness state and experience levels have transformed Singapore's fire and ambulance service, and civil rescue teams beyond recognition.

That the SCDF has transformed itself in the space of 25 years reflects the drive and vision of pioneering SCDF officers, many of whom have since retired. If you think such transformation is automatic, take a peek into fire stations in some overseas countries next time you walk past and you may be surprised by the archaic equipment in their vehicle sheds.

Barely three months into 2011, the SCDF has lent its expertise to two oveaseas rescue missions.

At the time of writing, a team of five SCDF officers and five sniffer dogs trained to conduct Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) are on active duty in Japan. The Lionheart team is deployed alongside Japanese rescuers for quake and tsunami relief work. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions spearheaded by the Home Team are assigned the operational title of Lionheart.

Here's why the Lionheart deployments in 2011 are milestones for the SCDF.

1. The Lionheart deployments to Christchurch, New Zealand, and to Japan marked the first time since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that the SCDF had Lionheart teams deployed in two countries concurrently. In January 2005, the SCDF had Lionheart teams deployed in Sumatra, in Indonesia, and in Phuket, Thailand.

2. The Lionheart team now in Japan is the northernmost deployment for SCDF officers. This is believed to be the first time SCDF officers are in Japan for a HADR operation. Incidentally, the record for the highest altitude (as opposed to latitude) deployment goes to the SCDF team that helped with the Nepal quake relief mission.

3. The Lionheart team that wrapped up the mission in Christchurch is - you guessed it - the southermost deployment ever staged by the SCDF. Any farther south and they would be in Antarctica. This year's Lionheart deployments show the range of latitudes and climates that the SCDF is prepared to send its people to. (One hopes the Home Team gives its officers a decent cold weather clothing allowance.)

4. The Japan Lionheart team is one of the smallest the SCDF has deployed for a rescue. It also has the highest rescuer to rescue dog ratio of 1:1. Sniffer dogs sent by Singapore give Japanese rescuers that extra edge when combing collapsed structures for survivors. The value of the J-Lion contribution therefore goes beyond the headcount and tonnage of supplies airflown from Singapore.

As we remember the victims of the Hotel New World disaster and recent natural disasters in the Pacific Rim, we should also treasure the contributions of the Lionheart team and SCDF team members who are on call 24/7 and train hard for every 995 call.

Best of luck to the J-Lion team.


Anonymous said...

Kudos to ex-commissioner James Tan for driving much of the transformation of SCDF for the past 17 years. SCDF is also one of the few UN certified Heavy USAR teams in the world, thanks to his efforts and the dedicated personnel from SCDF. I work with SCDF personnel on a daily basis, and their dedication and single-mindedness (not to mention sense of camaraderie) is inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Though the SCDF had scaled new heights, I am concerned by their recent slacks in their operational equipments. Two recent case of emergencies shows caught the SCDF off guard.
1. The fire at Afro Building in Robinson Road where the Fire engine ladder stalled and the fire fighters at a loss and wating time to fix the equipment instaed of getting another vehicle in and fighting the fire. While there I also witness the hose leaking, plug to the fire hydrant disengaged, this was not reported by the media.
2. The Ambulance that caught fire at Geylang East. Not sure how the person that required that ambulance fared, lucky they were not in that ambulane and on the way.
These lapses shows the SCDF though painted so professionally is in fact not ready probably the top is too complacent.