From accidents to disasters, volunteer firefighters in Malaysia brave dangers to save lives
There are more than 380 teams of volunteer firefighters in Malaysia, which complement the work of the Fire and Rescue Department when emergencies happen.
BENTONG, Pahang: It was late Friday afternoon as members of the Perting Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association left their station in a fire truck to check on the fire hydrants in the vicinity.
They examined the hydrants for signs of corrosion and then tested the water pressure.
A full-force stream of water blasted from the fire hose’s nozzle held by a volunteer, while another teammate supported him at the back.
“We take the fire truck out for a drive regularly, even if there’s no fire, to make sure everything is working,” said Lim Sang Hong, 44, the current chairman for the volunteer association.
“Right now, we are constantly on standby because the weather for the past few days has been very dry and there is the danger of bush or forest fires,” he added.
The Perting team, based in the Perting Chinese New Village, is among 382 such teams dotted around the country that play a niche role in Malaysia’s firefighting and rescue capabilities.
They complement the local Fire and Rescue Departments and help to meet urgent requests for manpower in firefighting or relief efforts, both in more rural areas and built-up localities such as the Klang Valley.
The volunteer teams have to undergo periodic training at the Fire and Rescue Department. In Selangor for example, eight hours of training a month is compulsory.
“The team will be exposed to basic fire extinguishing, rescue techniques, inspection procedures for fire hydrants and other skills as scheduled,” Selangor Fire and Rescue Department’s assistant director Senior Fire Superintendent 1 Hafisham Md Noor explained to CNA.
Personal protective equipment such as fire-retardant coveralls, gloves, helmets and boots will be supplied, along with hoses and their fitting equipment, vehicles and water tenders, he said.
The majority of fire and rescue volunteer teams also source funding from various donors to purchase more equipment.
Some volunteer teams, such as those based in the northern peninsula, are sponsored by local manufacturers and can therefore afford expensive sky-lift fire engines, Mr Lim added.
Given their efficiency in servicing places far from government-run fire stations, the Fire and Rescue Department is planning to increase the number of these teams to 500 by 2030.
For some members of the public, participating in these volunteer associations serve as a form of community building and engagement, which allows them to contribute to the society.
HOW VOLUNTEER TEAMS CAME ABOUT
These volunteer brigades were often started by local residents upon realising that they could be the first-responders when emergencies happen in their neighbourhoods.
The Perting volunteer association, for instance, got its start after a massive fire in 2000 destroyed 88 houses in the village.
The Chinese New Villages, founded during Malaysia’s communist insurgency era, typically have wooden houses built closely together.
The pro-tem committee was set up in 2001 and by 2005, the association had built its first volunteer fire station and acquired its own 1,500-litre capacity fire engine.
Mr Lee Weng Foo, 65, the association’s deputy chairman and main driver for the fire engine, said over 100 volunteers registered but there are only 35 active members currently for emergency calls.
“The less active ones assist with our equipment servicing and maintenance,” Mr Lee said.
Almost every member has a full-time job or business to attend to, but the volunteer station’s two-way radio is always switched on.
“If something big happens, the Fire and Rescue Department personnel will go into action first. But we will also be contacted to either standby or be mobilised to help out,” Mr Lee said.
It is a similar story for the men and women who joined the Kepong Selangor Volunteer Fire Brigade in Taman Desa Jaya on the border between the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur and the Selangor state.
Mr Kelvin Tung, 42, the current chairman and a founding member of the Kepong volunteer association, said the team had branched out from a nearby volunteer association on the Kuala Lumpur side.
“At first, we started out by helping to cover for incidents in the immediate area, then we started helping to cover Selangor.
“Now, we can be deployed to the whole of Peninsular Malaysia,” Mr Tung told CNA.
The Kepong team is also one of the better equipped outfits, with a 2,000-litre capacity fire engine, two ambulances, and two pickup trucks outfitted with rescue equipment such as chainsaws and even a fibreglass boat used for flood incidents.
In fact, the team has just returned from Baling district, Kedah, where they were helping out with flood relief efforts after heavy rains resulted in flash floods earlier this month.
“Usually, before we buy any equipment, we collect contributions among our own team members before looking for outside help or donations,” Mr Tung said.
MORE THAN JUST FIGHTING FIRES
Fighting fires is not the sole purpose of these volunteers.
The Perting volunteer association has also been involved in many search-and-rescue efforts and assisting with motor vehicle accidents in the 20 years since its founding.
Bentong town sits along the Kuala Lumpur-Karak Expressway, one of the main roads linking Peninsular Malaysia’s east and west coasts, which often sees heavy traffic on long weekends and festive seasons.
“Often when there is a major accident on the highway, a bus goes into a ravine for example, we will also be called in,” Mr Lim said.
Mr Lim recalled a particularly painful incident in 2004 when the volunteer association was mobilised for over a month to search for the body of a girl, who had been washed away in a river in the Lentang Forest Reserve near Bentong.
“Her father held on to the belief that she was still alive, so we did our utmost,” Mr Lim recounted.
Mr Lee, his deputy, added that villagers were also enlisted to help lay down pipes to temporarily divert the river flow, in case the girl’s body was caught in rocks along the river bed.
“We also got reports of a tiger roaming nearby in those days, but there was nothing to be done except to carry a parang and pray we do not meet the tiger while searching for the young lady,” Mr Lee said.
“We eventually found the girl’s body, but her head and some limbs were missing.”
The Kepong volunteers, meanwhile, also helped to ferry food and other necessities in mid-2021 under the “white flag” grassroots movement, where people who had exhausted their finances or lost their jobs due to COVID-19 lockdowns put up white flags outside their house as a call for assistance.
FILLING A GAP IN SERVICE DELIVERY
Mr Hafisham of the Selangor Fire and Rescue Department explained to CNA that fire and rescue services in Malaysia came into existence over a century ago.
It started in 1883 with the founding of the Selangor Free Rescue Volunteers led by H.F. Bellamy with 15 members, he said.
This volunteer team was subsequently placed under the colonial government’s Sanitary Board, and has developed through independence and the formation of the federation into the current Fire and Rescue Department under the Housing and Local Government Ministry.
“Firefighting and prevention is the responsibility of the federal government. Hence, fire stations are built from time to time in strategic areas by the federal government.
“However, this effort is currently unable to fulfil all needs, especially in smaller towns and rural areas,” Mr Hafisham said.
As such, one step to fill this service gap was by introducing and mobilising volunteer fire and rescue teams throughout the country.
One performance indicator of the department’s service delivery, Mr Hafisham added, is its response time to an incident.
To raise this performance bar, volunteer brigades come into the picture as an “alternative services delivery” to sub-urban, rural and remote areas.
Volunteer teams are also needed in built-up and urban areas such as the Klang Valley given the population density, traffic congestion and obstacles in arriving at an incident’s location, Mr Hafisham added.
Normally, the Fire and Rescue Department allocated between RM1,500 (US$336) and RM3,000 annually in assistance funds to volunteer groups, depending on how active the group is.
“Future plans for the department are to focus on locations farther than 10km and 10 minutes’ response time from fire stations,” Mr Hafisham said.
This would include building new government-run fire stations and establishing new volunteer teams in such under-served areas, he explained.
The department aims to have 500 volunteer teams throughout the country by 2030, he added.
In March this year, Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister Ismail Abd Muttalib informed the parliament that there are 382 volunteer teams throughout the country, with a membership of 13,600.
GIVING BACK TO SOCIETY
The sense of fulfilment from helping others and making a meaningful contribution to society motivates the volunteers despite the possible hazards.
Mr Tung of the Kepong association recalled how his former chairman, the late Jason Yap, had tirelessly helped deliver care packages to households in need at the ultimate cost of his own life.
Mr Yap had insisted on making more delivery trips even though he was reeling from the side effects of his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“One week, he was complaining about chest pains, we decided we could not wait anymore and drove him to the hospital,” Mr Tung said.
After a few days of being warded, Mr Yap was supposed to be discharged but suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away.
Assistant studio photographer Candyze Wong, 35, told CNA she was initially puzzled as to why her boyfriend, Kenny Chai, 37, had volunteered to join the Kepong team.
“But then when we helped out with the white flag movement delivering the care packages, I understood the duty and what it means to serve the community,” she said while pulling on her firefighter coveralls and boots to join other volunteer teams to fight a massive factory fire in Port Klang on a recent Friday night.
While volunteering is tiring, the satisfaction keeps her and her partner going.
“Luckily nothing untoward has happened yet,” she said.
Chiming in, Mr Tung said: “Actually, a lot of us have seen a lot, but all we pray for every time we head to assist in a fire or rescue is that nothing worse happens, and we all get back safely.”