Kochi: A deluge that almost drowned the entire Kerala and several landslides that buried villages under boulders and slurry in August 2018 were not bad enough wake-up calls for the state government to make its Fire and Rescue Services battle-ready for any future eventuality.
If the feedback from the rescue force's experience at landslide-hit Kavalappara in Kerala's Malappuram district almost a year later was anything to go by, the personnel are still not equipped with modern technology or training to tackle a situation Kerala faced in August 2019. They badly need modern equipment and vehicles to carry out a rescue operation like Kavalappara, where landslides buried scores of villagers on August 8.
The Kavalappara mission will always remain as a crucial episode in the history of fire and rescue force in Kerala. They led the operation in coordination with other government agencies and civil volunteers for 19 days. The mission was called off after the bodies of 48 of the 59 victims were traced from the debris filled with boulders, mud, tree trunks and concrete pieces.
Even as the personnel vouch for the fact that it was the biggest experience in their career, they also admit that they realised their limitations without modern equipment and vehicles at Kavalappara. The officers who led the mission are of the view that they could make maximum use of the available strength and facilities but some of their weaknesses were also exposed during the operation.
The force has also prepared an internal report detailing the positives and negatives of the mission. The report gives some suggestions for improving the efficiency and preparedness of the force. The suggestions include need to implement incident command system and demand for advanced vehicles, equipment and specialised training.
V Siddhakumar, Palakkad regional head of the Fire and Rescue Services, who led the team at Kavalappara told Onmanorama that the search operation was effective despite initial difficulty to transport heavy equipment to the accident spot. “The difficulty to carry heavy generators that were used to recharge hydraulic cutters and jack hammers through the slurry caused difficulties,” he said.
The conditions at Kavalappara were so bad that the force found it difficult to use even available resources. A key suggestion from Siddhakumar was that ground penetrating radar system has to be recalibrated so as to make them more effective in muddy areas.
A key feature of the Kavalappara operation was that the search was conducted after dividing the accident spot into six different zones based on the location of buried houses. The zones were divided based on the inputs given by local residents. Sources in the Fire and Rescue Services said the force, in its internal report, has suggested that maps of accident spots and blueprint of buildings in the area be made available to them with the help of district administration and the Geological Survey of India during future operations.
Incident command system, a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response providing a common hierarchy, was successfully put in place during the Kavalappara operation.
The force believes that each region should be provided with at least one incident command vehicle with facilities to control operations in the future.
Kavalappara was cut off from the outer world during the initial days of the operation and power was not available even to charge phones, making communication a near-impossibility. The fire force has sought more satellite phones and wireless systems.
Difficulty to remove slurry was a major hurdle the personnel had to face at Kavalappara. The force is in need of high power slurry pumps to overcome such obstacles during another operation. Slurry pump is designed for drawing out liquid containing solid particles.
Another major demand is that more personnel need to be given training in specialised areas such as rope rescue, flood rescue, mountaineering and rafting. For the past few years, training is given to fire and rescue personnel from Kerala at the National Civil Defence Academy and those who get training there in turn impart the skills to their colleagues at the Fire and Rescue Services Academy at Viyyur in Thrissur.
Amphibian vehicles with outboard engine and rubber dinghy and more multi-utility vehicles are also the need of the hour to make the force prepared for emergency situations, sources said.
A couple of rescue personnel, who suffered injuries during the Kavalappara operation, had to be taken to a hospital at Nilambur, 29 km from the landslide spot. This validates the force's demand for an own medical team that can help them during operations.
“Whenever we start an operation, our aim is to find survivors. Even if we rescue some, they need emergency medical service. For that we need to have our own medical team with doctors, nurses and paramedical staff. They can also help rescue personnel who suffer injuries during the operation and provide them preventive medicines and injections,” an officer, who took part in the Kavalappara operation, said.