On Assignment
Up High and Down Low with SCDF's Elite Lifesavers
Scaling the heights and drilling deep with the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s Urban Search and Rescue team.

Standing above the rubble and with almost no one else in sight, it really felt like I was looking at the aftermath of a massive earthquake. That’s just how realistic the training is at the Home Team Tactical Centre (HTTC). 

Together with other members of the media, I was at the HTTC to try out the “Leaning Tower” and “Catacomb”, both of which are designed to help specialist units like the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s (SCDF) Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) hone their skills.

30 Mar 2018 HTTC DART Training SCDF
An SCDF officer briefing the team on what to do before we navigated through the rubble. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari


Training Alongside the SCDF’s Finest 
“Many officers have served in the SCDF for years but don’t even get to wear the DART uniform,” a DART officer said to me as I donned the unit’s heavy-duty overalls, safety boots and helmet. That’s because only the very best get chosen to be part of this elite team. 

Operation Lionheart, DART’s overseas Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) contingent, has been certified a “Heavy USAR Team” since 2008 by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, a network of 80 countries and organisations under the United Nations umbrella. It’s the highest certification a team can receive. Since its formation in 1990, Operation Lionheart has gone on 17 missions, lending assistance after events such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. 

Decked out in DART attire, I was ready to be embedded into the unit’s USAR training for the day.

30 Mar 2018 SCDF HTTC DART
Wearing the suit for the first time felt a little uncomfortable, but safety paddings on the knee and arm areas provided the necessary protection against the hazardous environment. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari 


Not for the Faint of Heart

Our first task was to climb into a collapsed building, locate a casualty and carry him out to safety. It sounded easy, but there was a twist: this wasn’t just any ordinary structure.

The “Leaning Tower” is a collapsed building that’s slanted at an 18-degree angle. It doesn’t sound like much, but it made it that more difficult to do basic movements such as climbing the stairs and walking in a straight line. It was disorientating and challenging, as gravity pulled us in different directions as we walked.

30 Mar 2018 HTTC SCDF Dart Simulator Leaning Tower
PHOTO: Ash Tiwari


In fact, rescuers themselves may feel dizzy and nauseous if they haven’t experienced operating in such buildings, according to DART Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Chew Keng Tok. Having such a facility therefore prepares them to face such scenarios.

We eventually managed to climb to the top of the building and rescued the “casualty” – a 25kg human-sized dummy. Even with a four-man team, it was difficult to carry the casualty, especially when we had to avoid obstacles and ensure the safety of the “injured person”.
30 Mar 2018 DART HTTC SCDF Training Simulator
The team carrying the human dummy to the medical post, where he will be “treated” for any injuries. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari


From High Above to Beneath the Rubble

For our next mission, we collaborated with our friends from the SCDF’s K-9 unit: Dodge and Ted! Hailing from the United Kingdom, these dogs are trained to sniff out a human scent in order to find those trapped beneath rubble.

30 Mar SCDF k9 DART HTTC Simulator
Meet Ted, our furry rescuer from the SCDF’s K-9 unit! Photo: Ash Tiwari

Barking to confirm the presence of a human scent, the dogs will alert rescuers who then use wireless seismic sensors and a video camera probe to confirm a casualty’s precise location. After this has been established, the next step is to rescue the casualty.

The team shared a load of equipment that weighed 60kg which included a drill, rebar cutter, stretcher and some blankets. Crawling through the 125-metre-long “Catacomb” – a damp, narrow tunnel – we found the only source of light to be its entrance and exit points. 

30 Mar HTTC Simulator DART SCDF
The load we carried as we trudged through the tunnel. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari


Man Versus Wall

Truly, it was a Herculean task to drill through the concrete – the humidity in the tunnel built up, and sweat trickled down our faces non-stop as our goggles were pelted by small rocks chipped off by the drilling. 
 
30 Mar DART SCDF simulator
Rescuers have to wear proper gear, such as protective eyewear and a face mask to shield themselves against dust and debris. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari


After what seemed like more than an hour (we were told afterwards that it was less than 30 minutes), we were finally able to create an opening big enough for the casualty to be brought to safety. 

Depending on the size and thickness of the concrete, SCDF officers revealed that such operations can take up to half a day, adding that our concrete slab was considered “low grade” and (supposedly) easier to drill through. I think all four of us would attest that drilling through the concrete wasn’t an easy feat at all.


All for One

By the end of the training simulation, our shirts were drenched with sweat and our faces red with exhaustion. A little dazed after the whole experience, we were also relieved that we had done well together.

“One of the most important traits of a DART member is to be a team player,” DART Platoon Commander Kelvin Koh said. “In all the operations that DART is called upon for, it's never a one-man show. It's always about the team, and how to work together to overcome the most difficult scenarios.”
 
What we went through was only a taste of what the USAR team’s training is like. We were also lucky that the weather was forgiving that day, with clouds shading us from the hot sun.

Inclement weather, operational hazards and the likelihood of having to work in hostile environments, far from home – one can’t help but think about the sacrifices our SCDF officers make, just to protect and save lives.

  1. by Muhamad Khair
  2. 06 April 2018
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