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     Volume 9 Issue 41| October 22, 2010 |

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The Unsung Heroes

The Fire Services and Civil Defence Department has faced scathing criticism after failing to save a single victim in the Aminbazaar tragedy. But with only 25 rescue divers on call for the whole country how much can it really do?

Aantaki Raisa

Photo: star File

Aminbazaar, a sleepy little area in Savar, woke up to a ghastly nightmare last week when a Gulistan-bound bus carrying 45 passengers plunged into the river Turag. Two days later, when the bus was rescued, not a single victim was found alive.

Many have pointed their finger at the Fire Services and Civil Defence Department (FSCD) for not acting promptly. But the divers at the department say that they work on a shoestring budget and they do not have the facilities that fire fighters and divers across the globe have to work efficiently.

“I was summoned from Chittagong for the Turag mission. I reached the spot the next day and within hours spotted the bus. If there was a station with trained divers close by, it wouldn't have been just the dead bodies that we could recover,” says Md Chan Mia, who won this year's President's Civil Defence Award, “We live with disaster. We get at least one diving call every three days. And we only have 25 posts for divers.”

The Fire Services and Civil Defence Department of Bangladesh has a total of 6000 staff (for a population of 150 million), 25 of whom are rescue divers (in a riverine country like ours). Some station officers get trained by the Navy as rescue divers due to the insufficient number of divers.

Md Chan Mia is one such diver. There are only 217 fire stations in Bangladesh; 12 of them are in Dhaka. The department's rescue squad is not crippled just by numbers; they are stymied technologically as well. The rescue divers receive only shallow diving training from the Navy. Yet, they are the ones to dive deep down into the water to identify sunken vehicles.

“We are the only divers who can conduct rescue dives but we do not receive the necessary salvage training,” explains Chan Mia. “We are not trained with under-water welding which is a must to get inside the submerged vehicles. Still, we take the risk and get into the vehicle through broken windows or doors,” Chan Mia adds.

He says that the divers are often blamed for not getting buses and launches out of the water in time or for not being able to save any victims, but the truth is they are barely equipped even to identify the sunken object, let alone rescuing it.

“I identified the bus on the very next day and tied it to a rope to pull it up. But the rescue ships of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) could not reach the spot due to the shallow water level; hence the bus could not be recovered. I, along with other divers dived again and lifted the bus a little, using cranes. That was of no help either, due to the lack of preparedness and equipments,” says Mia, who spotted the bus that Navy's sonic scanning machine had failed to identify.

Lack of rescue divers and proper training hampers FSCD operations.

Another rescue diver, who wants to remain anonymous, adds: “If we are properly equipped and trained with necessary courses we can conduct the rescue missions more efficiently. Because we are used to rescue diving and we have the heart to dive as deep as necessary.”

The pain and agony these divers have to go through is not always because of lack of equipment or training. “We do not have social or economic status. Our work is belittled both by media and by the society. I received 7- month training while a police officer of my rank receives a 6-months. Still, the honour a police officer receives exceeds mine,” an officer at the FSCD says, “it's only recently we started to get 100 percent ration, still there is discrimination against us compared to the other defence departments.”

The internal structure of the fire services department has remained unchanged since the British Raj. “We need to reconstitute this department both structurally and salary wise,” he says.

The biggest problem perhaps, is that the FSCD has remained one of the Government's least budgeted portfolios.

“We are always blamed for being late. You tell me how long it takes for you to come to Mirpur from Karwan Bazar on a workday?” demands ABM Nurul Haque, principal of Fire Services Training Complex.

He says that besides the unbearable traffic jam, they have to face the problem of eager spectators, who are always there to overcrowd the spot. “We cannot even find place to park our vehicle because there are parked vehicles of onlookers,” he says, “Dhaka is an unplanned city; you will find factories and houses side by side, the electric wires, dish and internet lines cause problems for our vehicle to penetrate.”

A station officer complains that the general public has not always been supportive to the FSCD's cause. “We lack support from the public as well. I have seen pedestrians crossing the road and hand-gesturing at us to stop despite our emergency siren,” he says, “There are times when the general people have attacked us, verbally and physically on the spot. Yet, while one of us gets beaten, others try to do their job. It hurts when people question our dedication after all these efforts.”

Md Chan Mia also thinks that the FSCD members work under immense pressure. He says, “We dive under high currents just to rescue whatever and whoever we can, disregarding the standards, rules and regulations for divers' own safety measures; that's how devoted we are to our work.”

Diver Idris who dived into the filth of a manhole to recover the corpses of the BDR victims, thinks at the end of the day what matters to him is living up to the faith and trust people place in his work. He says, “I joined the Fire Services because it helps people and that's what I intend to do in my life, no matter what.”

Like Idris, Md Fazlur Rahman was also involved in the Turag rescue efforts. He says, “We joined this department because we really want to serve people. We just want people to love us and appreciate our work. We are not here for personal benefits but we love working for this department and we want its development.”



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