Building character through firefighting

Volunteer fire fighters are called in to continue spraying water until the smoke had subsided on a pile of plastic containers that caught fire at Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur last year.

VOLUNTEER firefighters, in an effort to widen their reach, are eager to rope in more youths in the community service.

In an interview with volunteers, StarMetro learned that it was the gratitude shown by those whom they rescued that kept them dedicated to volunteerism.

Many whom we spoke to said the spirit of adventure, personal satisfaction and deriving joy in helping others were values that could benefit the younger generation in becoming useful members of society.

Having joined the Jinjang Utara volunteer fire team at age 18, Kelvin Tung, who is Selangor Kepong Volunteer Firefighting and Rescue Team vice-president, said being part of the uniform unit had turned his life around for the better.

“I was a wayward teenager and used to hang out at places where I shouldn’t. It all ended when I was picked up in a raid and spent a night in jail.

“That was when my father insisted I join the volunteer fire team.

“At that time, the head of the team impressed upon me that I would be able to help others if I was part of the group but if I chose to be a gangster, I would only bring misery to others,” said Tung, 41, who now works as a private bodyguard.

He said the act of helping others built character and it was why firefighters stood out in the community.

“You need to have high level of professionalism to be part of a rescue or disaster response team.

“One example is that members cannot use the excuse that they have ‘forgotten’ what was taught during training sessions,” he said.

Twenty-two-year-old Low Choon Lym stressed that awareness was the best form of fire prevention.

Low, an active member of Sentul Volunteer Firefighters Association (PBS Sentul) who works full-time with the Airport Fire Rescue Service Department, said many did not know the importance of a fire hydrant.

While trying to help put out a fire at a spare parts shop in Kepong earlier this year, Low and his team had to break an obstructive cement structure that was built around a fire hydrant.

“The shop was razed by the time we gained access to water,” he said.

Inspired to become a firefighter after he could only watch helplessly as a neighbour’s house burned down when he was 15, Low said he had come across many Malaysians who still did not know how to use fire extinguishers.

He said his job had helped him become a better person who was confident and clear about his purpose to help save lives.

He also emphasised the importance of being focused during training sessions.

“Let’s say you have been shown how to secure a suction line for a hose, forgetting the knots needed to keep this in place can jeopardise a mission,” he explained.

One lesson that Chong Keat Voon has learned from his 20 years as a volunteer firefighter is to never fight fire with fire.

“It is never about how brave or how much of a hero you can be.

“It is about whether you are able to work as a team, how well you follow instructions and above all, safety comes first,” said the chairman of PBS Sentul.

The 60-year-old mechanic and father of three, who formed his own team eight years ago, said the origins of volunteer firefighting teams could be traced back to Chinese new village settlements.

Housing and Local Government Ministry’s new village department special officer Richard Tan said 380 volunteer fire brigades (PBS) remain active with 15,000 members nationwide, including those at Orang Asli settlements in Sabah and Sarawak.

Tan said a healthy relationship between the fire department, the PBS and local residents would ensure that people get help more efficiently.

“The teams can collaborate with the local fire department to organise fire prevention activities, such as raising awareness and educating residents,” he said.

To give a real picture of what was happening on the ground today, Chong said volunteers would assist the Fire and Rescue Department in tasks like dispersing crowds, securing hoses to hydrants, organising food and water for rescuers and helping to cool areas to prevent fires from reigniting.

They are also dispatched to inspect fire hydrants, remove fallen trees and catch wild animals like snakes, monitor lizards and civet cats.

Depending on how well-equipped an outfit is, they may be called to assist in disaster areas and accidents.

Trainees are taught basic fire- fighting, rescue and safety techniques using equipment like the self-contained breathing apparatus as well as how to put on and take off personal protective suits.

They are also drilled on hose, pump and rope usage.

Seniors are required to go for similar refresher courses weekly.

Inspection of fire hydrants are often reserved for Sundays. The volunteer teams carrying out the inspection in their respective areas will report any malfunction to the fire department.

The volunteer firefighters attend weekly training sessions conducted by the fire department.

Unit heads like Chong are strict when it comes to how volunteers behave at a scene of emergency.

“I once had a member who rushed into a burning building thinking that a fireman’s water hose would keep him safe.

“When we returned to our headquarters, I told him to return his uniform and go home.

“This was because he disobeyed a direct order to stay outside the burning area,” said Chong.

There are no specialised programmes with regards to recruitment drives to rope in new volunteers.

New members are either driven by interest (like Low) or recommended to join by their elders for want of more wholesome pursuits.

Chong agreed that many youths who were now part of volunteer fire teams had found new purpose instead of wasting their life with bad hats.

Senior firefighters feel that youths who are fixated on computer games and physically inactive will benefit by signing up as volunteer firefighters.

Emphasis is also given to character building in community service.

Volunteer firefighting group leaders will usually speak with potential candidates to assess interest and commitment.

However, membership is not free of charge.

For Desa Petaling Volunteer Firefighters Association (PBS Desa Petaling), the fee is RM50.

A mentoring system exists but it is an informal process.

Juniors attend training and learn by example from their seniors.

The main force driving volunteer fire teams is the spirit of brotherhood among members.

This is most evident when a group is in need of funding.

“Our members have a high level of volunteerism.

“Many of them pay for their own meals and transport when they are called in to assist,” said PBS Desa Petaling committee member Chia Kheng Choon.

He said that when the unit needed money for firefighting equipment, it could rely on members and 30 other volunteer fire brigade groups in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Pahang, Penang and Perak to raise funds.

Federal Territories MCA DBKL Affairs Bureau chief Banie Chin, who is on the panel of patrons and advisors, helped to find a sponsor from a bedding company when the brigade needed a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle.

Equipped with a 70-litre water tank and two 4hp water pumps –- one to direct water from the vehicles tank to an attached hose reel and the other to connect to a fire hydrant -– the new acquisition will help the team go to places where roads are too narrow to accommodate fire trucks.

With gentrification and new villages being no longer what they used to be, the role of volunteer fire teams is also changing with the times.

Kampung Baru Salak Selatan village head Chen Chong Hing said that in addition to being first responders during emergencies, they shared knowledge on fire prevention awareness and safety within the community.

PBS Desa Petaling, which has its headquarters in Kampung Baru Salak Selatan, has designed a 16-page handbook with basic information such as emergency numbers to call as well as how to handle a fire extinguisher.

“We have 40 streets here.

“Our target is for at least one person from each street to have this knowledge,” said Chen.

It is also the village head’s hope for the unit to be able to mobilise an emergency response team in times of disaster by coordinating with the fire department, The People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) and Malaysian Red Crescent Society.

Those interested to volunteer can find their nearest team via

Applicants are required to fill in a form.

Training is provided and new candidates will be observed for a year.

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