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Volunteer firefighters brave the heat to save lives


The gratification that comes from saving lives is reward enough for members of the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association who demonstrate the spirit of volunteerism at its best.

WHEN a fire or emergency breaks out in your neighbourhood, who do you call? Captain K. Balasupramaniam looks forward to the day when we can turn to trained volunteers in our immediate community.

For the past 21 years, Capt Bala as he is commonly called, has been actively training dedicated volunteers for deployment during fires, landslides, floods and accidents in Malaysia and abroad. They are members of the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association (MVFRA) which Capt Bala set up with two other members of the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Cadet Corp in 1991.

Today, there are 56 registered member volunteers; some are trained first responders who are ready to be called into action, while others handle prevention activities or are professionals who are relied on for their specific fields of expertise such as in medical care.

“We started MVFRA to give people the joy of helping others as a direct way of serving our nation,” explains Capt Bala, 39.

“However, we do not want to be a duplicate of our existing Fire and Rescue Department (FRD), so we also organise awareness and prevention programmes.”

Through MVFRA’s Fire Kids workshops, over 700,000 young children throughout Malaysia have been educated in fire safety and prevention, especially on knowing what to do when caught in a fire.

The programme remains very popular. Children get to participate in the fun and interactive sessions instead of just watching.

Smoke machines even spew out smoke to replicate real situations in which children must “escape” by learning to unlock padlocked grills blindfolded.

They also learn crawling, assisting “siblings” who cannot walk, “Stop, Drop and Roll” (a fire safety technique) and other exercises crucial during a real fire.

Capt Bala is against the idea of government allowances for volunteer firefighters. Presently, there are about 354 volunteer firefighting teams with 15,575 members around Malaysia to support some 13,000 full-time firefighters.

“It takes away the very spirit of volunteerism,” he says. “Volunteerism is about giving back to our nation and communities through our service.

“At MVFRA, we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort training our volunteers; everyone signs in utilising their own time and money. They never ask for anything in return. They don’t do it for the glory or recognition, awards, applause or getting to wear a uniform. They simply want to help in a way they have been trained to. This is volunteerism at its best.

“An effective fire and rescue volunteer needs to be adequately equipped with knowledge, skills and facilities.

“The concept of monetary returns is damaging because we are giving out incentives for their time, skill and effort.

“People think volunteer work is wasting time but our volunteers work with so much passion and interest. You feel different when you are in a position to help others.”

Capt Bala fondly recalls an incident in 1994 when a man walked into the MVFRA office and gave him a hug.

“You saved me,” he said between tears.

It was a man whom Capt Bala had helped extract from a car wreckage. He lost an eye and injured his back, but was grateful for a second chance at life.

“How can anyone put a price on the gratitude of people whose lives we have been fortunate enough to assist at a time when they need it most?” Capt Bala asks.

“We’d feel bad accepting money. The gratification of helping another person is sufficient reward.”

Each MVFRA volunteer forks out his or her own money to buy their own set of uniform and gear. A complete set of equipment can cost about RM10,000.

The volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and vocations.

Every Sunday, they gather at the MVFRA office in Taman Maluri, Kuala Lumpur, for a two-hour training session.

Some volunteers prefer to be trained for groundwork or what is termed as the Red Zone whereby they can be called upon anytime for any disaster.

Then there are those who opt to work in operations support (Yellow Zone) or handle technical maintenance (Green Zone).

Some volunteers drop out after a while when they lose interest in weekly training.

“It is ok to let them go, as in a live operation, our lives and that of others are literally in each other’s hands so we need to be certain of a very high degree of commitment from each volunteer who must be sufficiently trained,” says Capt Bala.

So far, only 20 members volunteer in the Red Zone where 14 can be deployed instantly.

Armed with passion and the right knowledge, training and skills, anyone can render assistance in an emergency, says Capt Bala.

“Leadership is paramount to any organisation,” he says. “There is nothing I expect our volunteers to do that I would not be the first to do and do it well.”

The Malacca-born Capt Bala is a safety activist who is the founder and training director of Code Red Survival Academy in Kuala Lumpur.

Capt Bala grew up in the Kenanga flats, also known as the Ho Ching Yuen flats in Kuala Lumpur, where he sold newspapers to earn some pocket money after school. His father had hoped for his son to be a policeman, but Capt Bala did not enjoy wearing uniforms.

“I like the hidden passion behind the uniforms instead,” he says.

“Why do kids love superheroes? It’s not the costumes. It’s the fact that they are there when people need them. I see many heroes answering needs when they serve in various causes and charities, including our volunteers.”

Since young, Capt Bala had wanted to be a firefighter. He joined as a cadet at 14 and noted that little enthusiasm was shown by his fellow cadets.

At 18, he started the MVFRA while working as a property agent.

His office was a room in his mother’s house in Kuala Lumpur, while the principal of the San Peng Secondary School allowed him to use the school grounds to conduct training on Sundays.

Funds were raised through corporate sponsorships to run the Fire Kids safety workshops that are offered free to children.

Many people ridiculed his efforts, and Capt Bala was often urged to try direct selling instead as he is articulate.

“But my mother always told me to do whatever I feel strongly about. I also remember my grandfather who planted a mango tree outside his house so passers-by could share the fruits, too. I wanted to do something like that, to plant a tree of knowledge and share the fruits.”

MVFRA began growing slowly but surely.

Capt Bala and his small band of volunteers had a taste of their first disaster when they assisted in the Bright Sparklers fireworks factory tragedy in Sungai Buloh, Selangor, in 1991. Their efforts earned them recognition from the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department.

They were also on the ground during the 1993 Highland Towers tragedy in Selangor, that claimed 48 lives.

“We realised then the importance of rescue operations and not just firefighting,” says Capt Bala. “Every operation we’ve been involved in has been a vital learning phase for us to better prepare ourselves for future efforts.”

Ordinary heroes

MVFRA’s presence can be found at numerous disasters in Malaysia; in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, during the 2004 tsunami; the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003; and flood relief operations in Thailand last year.

“I remember a particularly bad auto accident in which we rescued the wife, but not her husband who died. The wife insisted on seeing her husband who was badly mangled. Although her shoulder was fractured, she raised her arm and touched her husband’s face tenderly as she wept.

“We all felt her loss. I whispered to my volunteer, ‘Wipe off your tears’; he turned and said to me, ‘Capt, you wipe yours first’.

In June 2007, Capt Bala and his team made headlines when they were involved in the dramatic rescue of an abused Indonesian maid, Ceriyati Dapin, 33, who attempted an escape through the window of her employer’s 18th floor Kuala Lumpur apartment. Ceriyati used a rope strung together from pieces of cloth. She froze in fear midway and was stuck on a ledge on the 15th floor.

Capt Bala was in the midst of conducting a training session nearby, when a frantic knock on the auditorium door brought them running out.

Several residents had laid out mattresses across the ground. But Capt Bala knew the impact would kill her upon landing. The only way was to go up to the floor above her, and rappel down to get her to safety.

Capt Bala tied a rope around his faithful volunteer Kody Muniyandi as a tether, as there were no balconies to use. Capt Bala then rappelled down and swiftly brought Ceriyati into the unit one floor below.

Ceriyati’s case created headlines in Malaysia and Indonesia. But to Capt Bala, it was perhaps providence that helped save a life.

“We usually do not take our fire engine out for training as vandals tend to scratch the vehicle wherever we park. But that morning something just made me drive it. That was how someone saw our fire engine and ran inside the auditorium to get us,” shares Bala.

“Unfortunately we tend not to value our lives and that of our loved ones until we are about to lose it. Many people are helpless during emergencies. We get calls from people screaming that their wife or grandfather had fainted and they did not know what to do, what steps to take, which emergency number to call, or where the nearest hospital is.

“There is never enough we could do as many lives are still being lost because people do not know what to do in an emergency.

“We don’t need as many fire stations as much as we need trained emergency responders in every community and neighbourhood.

“A single fire station cannot be expected to cover every need. It’s people like you and me who need to be called upon when we are trained to do so. We have no ‘superiors’ to refer to; we go when we are called,” adds Capt Bala.

> For more information on MVFRA, call 03-9101 1994 or visit mvfra.org

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