The first Fire and Rescue Dept diving team was established in Perak in 1987. Now, every state has a team. Altogether they handle more than 300 calls annually.
MORE than 1,300 drowning cases have been reported since 2013, with an average of three deaths a day. Most drownings took place at rivers (1,031), followed by beaches (296), lakes/mines (155), waterfalls (77) and sewers (14).
In a year, more than 300 distress calls on water-related activities were acted upon by the Fire and Rescue Department’s Underwater Rescue Team, with an average of one call a day.
“Usually, distress calls were dispatched to us only if the victims or the body could not be found, so the statistics vary with other enforcement agencies,” said Fire and Rescue Department Operation Management Department chief Assistant Fire Commissioner Syufaat Kamaron.
Syufaat said 609 of the department’s personnel were certified professional divers.
“We believe there are more cases than what have been recorded by the department,” he said.
For every drowning case received by the department, he said, a team would respond within 10 minutes to reach the location.
“The team would first conduct the ‘surface rescue search’ to scour the water and shores to look for the victim.
“Meanwhile, the underwater rescue team would be rounded up from the nearest zones and fire stations to be deployed to the scene, equipped with diving sets,” he said.
He said each team comprised seven members; the supervisor or master diver, two primary divers, two men for tender (rope holders) and two back-up divers.
The scope of the scuba diving unit included searching and rescuing victims underwater, whether they were lost or drowned.
The team was also often called in to help police find evidence or bodies underwater.
Syufaat said during the flood and monsoon seasons, the team would also be deployed to help evacuate affected residents.
Not only that, the team would also be put on standby if there were special events related to water activities, including the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition.
Syufaat said between January and April this year, the team responded to 120 calls. Out of these, 104 victims died, one injured and 31 were saved. Most drowning locations durign that period were at rivers (53), beaches (32), lakes/mines (12), waterfalls (5) and sewers (2).
Last year, 337 cases were recorded, where 260 victims were killed, nine were injured and 110 were saved.
In 2015, the team responded to 375 distress calls. Out of these, 335 died, 14 were injured and 98 were rescued.
With 30 years of service, the diving team was first set up in Perak in 1987 through the department’s own branch initiative.
At that time, the team only comprised 14 firemen who took up diving licences to respond to drowning cases.
Syufaat said in 1996, a similar initiative was undertaken by the department in Seremban, Negri Sembilan, with 20 divers.
“The response to the teams had been so positive that the department headquarters subsequently directed every state in the country to set up its own diving teams in 1997.
“Two years later, the department’s scuba diving team was officially launched,” he said.
In March 2007, 200 firemen attended courses at the Terengganu Safety and Training Centre, Southeast Asia’s premier safety and emergency training centre. The programme, at the cost of RM2 million, continues to be provided to the department’s diving personnel until today.
The success of the team prompted the cabinet to approve a RM100 allowance for every fireman with certified diving skills since last year.
The diving team has been classified as one of the specialised team under the department, formally known today as the Underwater Rescue Team.
At present, the department has a total of 29 teams with 609 divers nationwide, and it is expected to grow under a development programme approved by the department’s director-general Datuk Wira Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim in 2015.
Among the states with higher number of divers are Sabah with 50 divers, Sarawak (49), Terengganu (45), Pahang (44) and Perak (41). The number of personnel varies based on the needs of the respective states.
Plans are under way to expand the teams to 55, with a total of 1,155 divers in the country.
“The aim of the development programme is to ensure that every zone in each state will have its own diving team, which in turn will increase the response time of the team,” Syufaat said, adding that currently, divers needed to be rounded up from several zones of a district before being deployed to a scene.