Guardians of our Safety

The ‘Bystander Effect’ is a well- documented psychological phenomenon that suggests that the greater the number of people to witness an emergency, the less likely it is that any of them will intervene. Calls for help often fall on deaf ears as people in the crowd automatically assume that ‘someone else’ will take responsibility for acting and students of self-defence are often advised to call ‘fire’ instead in the case of an attack – apparently it is more likely to provoke a response. Whether this is true of Sarawak, where we are notoriously ‘ke poh’, is uncertain. But, if you are a member of the Padungan Bomba – then you are certain to come running in an emergency, provided of course that someone in the crowd has called you!

For most of us, a fire is a source of fear – raging heat, billowing smoke, surging threat and chaos – especially in the tightly packed heritage quarter of Kuching or in our urban kampungs and rural longhouses where wood structures can easily go up in smoke. But firemen don’t report feeling fear when a call comes in. As Gregory Kurung Suwen, Acting Zone Chief of Kuching, puts it: “People will run from the fire, but we go.” The training takes over. After all, this is the job and they must focus on the work ahead. They have a clear cut system: first comes rescue; then they calculate their exposure, controlling the hazards; next they confine the fire, perhaps destroying pathways that the flames might follow; and finally they extinguish. For them, a fire is more or less predictable, only the unexpected contents of the building can push events in an unexpected direction.

The fire families lived mostly on site, either in the station itself or in the flats behind and truly became Anak-anak Bomba, regardless of race or religion.

But the decisions are still endless. Every emergency is different and time is of the essence. They can act defensively, fighting the fire from outside or else they can go on the offensive, entering the building and attacking the source. This is more effective but ultimately more dangerous for the firemen. The decision rests on the officers, how far to expose their subordinates, colleagues, fellow firefighters, friends, in fact their ‘family’ to danger, all to save a stranger. Even the variety of emergency is endless.

Beyond fire – their core ‘business’ – lies road accident, water rescue and, here in Sarawak, even giant snakes and bilious hornet nests before we even come to building inspections, enforcement, training and public education.

Pop quiz! A man is trapped in a lorry filled with LPG gas. The lorry is on its side and is sliding inexorably through the mud into the river. The man is partially submerged and the water is rising. What do you do? In real life, Gregory Kurung Suwen, then with the Kanowit Bomba, made the split second decision to call in a bulldozer and hold the lorry in place while they freed the man, saving his life and the day. Avtar of Padungan fire station had to attend to a car on fire on his first day of work. Not really a typical day in the office, though of course, not every day is so dramatic! Gregory also tells the epic story of Bomba vs Beehive when they were called out to a house, only to find a family being terrorized by a single, solitary bee. One fire truck, eight firemen, one bee, one panicking family, one rolled up newspaper. Smack! Job done!

The usual demands of the job, however, demand that the standards are high. Hopeful firefighters are subjected to a rigorous physical assessment – good eyesight, no colourblindness, even a commanding voice and no more than three teeth missing. In Sarawak, that may be harder than it seems! They are made to run, lift weights, climb ropes and climb staircases. They must even have a certain level of education, with 5 credits at SPM a minimum. But with more than 10,000 applying in every batch for only a few hundred positions, it is unsurprising that standards are high. Many will often apply again.

But professional standards aside, for a real emergency, effective action ultimately relies on trust. These men (and women) have to trust their team to act, to back them, to stand with them and possibly even to save their life. This comes from training together – hours spent drilling, rolling and unrolling hoses, checking and rechecking equipment – but deep down it is familiarity that breeds a feeling of family. Avtar, the leading officer on a fire engine, always goes out with the same eight-man crew.When the new recruits come in, he shares, they are often excited by the idea of an emergency but they have to learn on the job and allow themselves to be guided by the other men.

He describes it as being ‘just like a family.’ He cannot allow problems to fester. “Sometimes we have to sit together and get opinions from each other,” he says. “I have to get involved so that things can go smoothly.” Mashidi, the OC of Balai Bomba Padungan, nods in agreement. “It is just like being parents at home. We have to get involved as a family. Sometimes I even have to punish them,” he smiles and then pauses. “Because we are facing big situations.” Both Avtar and Mashidi share the same gentle modesty. “The cases themselves make you humble”, says Avtar. When asked what qualities a fireman needs, he thinks long and hard. “A noble heart,” he replies finally. “It is a noble job, actually.” In fact, since the great fire of Kuching in 1884 razed the nascent town to the ground, whipping through the wooden shophouses of Main Bazaar like a ravenous monster, fire has occupied the minds of the Kuching authorities. The eponymous tower went up at Tower Market soon after, though it wasn’t until 1940 that the first dedicated fire station opened in the police station next to the Central Padang. They moved back to the site of Electra House in 1947 before finally settling into their current location at Padungan in 1957, the oldest of now several fire stations across the state.

Haji Shafiee Usawi bin Haji Bujang began in the service that very year. At the age of 80, he still has a powerful physique – fishing regularly around his Santubong home – and a sharp memory. This was a very different fire brigade, when it was still under the British as part of Kuching Municipal Board, long before it came under Federal in 1981. In those days, the only requirements were strength and courage and Haji Shafiee had plenty of both. The Kuching Fire Brigade didn’t look for schooling, just fitness, muscle and energy – all essential in this line of work before modern equipment made life easier. This was a time when the ‘Kereta Bomba’ had no water tank and the hoses would be connected to hydrants or, most often, simply stuck into a pond or open water supply. This was a time when firefighters hefted around huge aluminum ladders and a time when a crowbar was the only alternative to the jaws of life. He is ‘memang very happy’ when he sees the equipment they have now. Though, he smiles gently, even though their equipment was not sophisticated, they could still save lives.

Haji Shafiee once saved three people in a shophouse fire in 1978, smashing down the door and running three times into the burning building to pull them out with only a damp handkerchief tied round his face for protection. He smiles with quiet pride as he says that the child, named Dollah, is still alive somewhere in Sarawak.

Haji Shafiee regales the group, including Mashidi of Padungan Bomba and one of his men who sit rapt with attention at tales of his exploits in their own job under very different circumstances.

For a marine rescue, safety protocol consisted of tying a string around his waist and hurling himself into the water.

After all, there was only one scuba tank amongst 32 people. He tells how he once saved three people in a shophouse fire in 1978, smashing down the door and running three times into the burning building to pull them out with only a damp handkerchief tied round his face for protection. He smiles with quiet pride as he says that the child, named Dollah, is still alive somewhere in Sarawak. It is no wonder he received an award for gallantry.

But he also tells of his good friend, thrown 30 feet in a gas explosion during a Pending factory fire, who was horribly injured but survived until he passed away just a few years ago. He recounts the day of a fire in the Palm Hotel where he reached for the door of the burning downstairs bar, just as fellow firefighter Robert Samy pulled him back by his collar, saving him from an enormous explosion fueled by gas cylinders and bottles of liquor. The bonds of brotherhood were unbreakable. These were the days when Padungan fire station was one of the only ones in Sarawak, attending emergencies as far away as Lundu and Sri Aman. These firefighters lived and breathed the job and could never go far away in case a call came in.

The fire families lived mostly on site, either in the station itself or in the flats behind and truly became Anak-anak Bomba, regardless of race or religion.

This is the name of their Whatsapp group as they prepare for a series of reunions – the most recent with over 200 people – culminating in a huge celebration in December where they expect over 500. Bohari and Nellie, two of Haji Shafiee’s seven children, are part of the organizing committee and the event is more than a simple reunion. They are rediscovering part of their family and a huge part of their lives. Now that they are grown and have children of their own, they realize that the bonds they made with the other Anak-anak Bomba remain stronger than any since, even though many of them have gone on to important careers – their brother was once a star Sarawak footballer in the glory days of Ngap Sayot. “We got back something that we had lost for forty years,” shares Nellie.

The reminiscences come quickly – main cengkeh or guli in the station yard, kicking around a football made of wadded newspaper in the nearby field, going out shopping only to have their father called back for an emergency, sad now at the fire station empty of families and children. They remember seeing their father rushing everyday to put on his helmet and climbing into the fire truck or carrying out his daily drills. Bohari even knows how to roll the hoses properly. He confides that he wanted to be his father – their own hero. But none of Haji Shafiee’s children are in the service. In fact, the firefighters rarely encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. It is a dangerous job, after all, and the Anak Bomba also remember their father fishing at nighttime to supplement his income.

Many of the firefighters today feel sad when they hear complaints about slow response times. In fact, on many occasions, they check back in the records to find that no call was ever placed to them until long after the fire had started – the Bystander Effect in action. Strangely, not one firefighter reported that they had ever been visited by someone they had saved. Perhaps they thanked the senior officers, they muse, but never the individual fire fighters. But yet they all feel, deep down, that people appreciate their service. “It is a very honoured job,” says Gregory Kurung Suwen. “We don’t have any enemies but a lot of friends.” As for Haji Shafiee, even at the age of 80, he still feels the alert and his training return when he hears the sirens. It seems the Bomba has made him as much as he has helped to make them.

Karen’s first encounter with the Bomba was on the unfortunate occasion when she discovered that a 12-foot python living under her Green Road house had eaten her beloved cat. Since then, they have smoked out a hornet’s nest at her house and helped out in the Kuching Heritage Race 2017. While she hopes that she will not need to see them ever again in an official capacity, she truly believes that they do indeed have noble hearts.

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