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News Reports

Little India COI: A real pro…

I was totally impressed.

Lieutenant Tiffany Neo is one damn plucky woman. Petite with short cropped hair, she signed on with the SCDF last year and was the woman in charge of the SCDF crew of about eight men from Central Fire Station who first responded to a call for rescue at the site of a “traffic accident’’ along Race Course Road that night.

There she could be seen on the video togged up in fire-fighting gear….waving back the crowd to give “my guys’’ space. She crawled through the broken glass door to reach the bloodied female conductor. She hopped her way through the bus aisle stepping on seats looking for the driver. She had even stepped on him – he was hiding inside a dustbin – before he showed himself. And when it looked like the crowd had seen him standing up with her in the bus and had started pelting it, she instinctively ducked down to shield him.

Now, that looked like professionalism at its best. To think that this slight woman had to shout at the top of her voice so she could be heard by “my guys’’ above the din. That she was worried about a couple of her “guys’’ who had never seen a dead body. That she escorted the body to safety through a hostile crowd while being hit on the back and pelted. That she got a wounded colleague to a patrol car before returning to the accident scene.

She displayed “common sense, a rare commodity’’ as the COI chairman Pannier Selvam put it. He did ask though why the SCDF didn’t just reverse the bus to retrieve the body that was pinned down under left rear wheel. It would seem like common sense to take this quick way of retrieving the body given the swelling crowd.

It seems that this is not the way things are done, to prevent further damage to the body, for example.

The COI heard some technical details about the rescue work, with the use of hydraulic spreaders, pump ladder and air bags to jack up the bus so that Mr Sakhituvel could be retrieved. Some grisly details surfaced. Lt Tiffany, as she was called, had shone a torch under the bus and could see “grey matter’’. His head had been crushed into half its size. He was DOA, she reckoned. Dead on arrival. When he was moved from under the wheel, his body was “soft’’. Blankets were used to cover the body before he was loaded on a stretcher.   

She actually broke from protocol twice, when she removed the body from the scene when it was really the job of the police to do so and when she over-ruled the ambulance staff who tried to stop her from stowing the body there.

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Why the blankets? Out of respect for the dead and to shield the state of the body from the crowd who were pressing in for a look.

Why the ambulance? “If not the ambulance, then where else?’’ she replied. None of the vehicles were big enough.

Why not let the police take over the removal of the body since the SCDF’s job was done? She said they seemed pretty stretched dealing with the crowd.

She answered questions confidently, without hesitation, even reprising how she had reassured the Aunty – “don’t worry, ambulance coming’’ – and called out for the Uncle while she was in the bus looking for him.

When dead body, the Uncle and Aunty were secured, she gave orders to withdraw from the scene.

She was asked what she thought about the way the crowd had acted towards the rescue team. She professed herself baffled. She was perplexed, she said, because her crew was doing rescue work…So why were they behaving that way? It was “disheartening’’, she said.

It was COI chairman Selvam who actually gave an inkling about why the crowd was so hostile that night. He told Lt Tiffany that he had heard from foreign workers who had heard from others that Mr Sakithuvel was still alive when he was pinned under the bus.  The crowd was upset that the first uniformed officers on the scene seemed more intent on protecting the driver and female conductor than saving the man. When he was extricated, they were upset that there was no medical staff in attendance.

Seems like the crowd didn’t realise that he was already dead and were thinking that the officers placed a greater premium on saving the driver and the female conductor than their compatriot. So many mixed signals and wrong perceptions!

By the way, the Red Rhino which first got to the scene and which started work lifting the bus DID have water, so did the fire engine she was on. In fact, the Red Rhino carried a spray gun of “water mist’’.  Maybe it would have worked on the crowd?

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And it was not true, said Lt-Col Daniel Seet, commander of area which included Little India, that SCDF declined the police request for more fire-fighters at the scene later. According to him, SCDF wanted to know first whether there was a safe place for the fire-fighters to gather before deploying – which it did later.

Lt-Col Seet’s testimony was a little weird, departing from the style of getting witnesses to confirm their statements and answer questions in the process. Instead, he gave a powerpoint presentation on what the SCDF did that day and “lessons learnt’’. He even praised his own officers for the work they did and had good words to say about the co-operation between the SCDF and police teams. Rather odd to pass judgment before the COI – although Mr Selvam did say the COI thought there were no major lapses on the part of SCDF.

In any case, better that the SCDF incorporated measures than wait for the COI to say so – which would be six months later.

Some interesting things :

  • The SCDF knows what to do when there is civil “disobedience’’, like staged protests ecetera, but not civil “disorder’’ like a spontaneous outbreak of violence. It will now incorporate more elements of “uncertainty’’ in its training and exercises.
  • It has cameras on its engines that give its command operations real-time feeds so that HQ could know what was happening. Wonderful… except that this was not being transmitted to the cops – no technical link. To be rectified. But it seems that the SCDF was relaying info to the cops by phone and taking pictures on their own camera phones of the images and relaying them.  
  • The SCDF will carry more than one helmet in its vehicle. This was actually intended for paramedics but the SCDF found the need for it to shield the driver and female conductor from attack.
  • The SCDF also carries wire mesh of some sort that can be erected to cordon off an area. But this takes time to set up apparently. It will start looking at how to use this effectively.  

Did Lt Tiffany ever harbour the idea of leaving the scene when it started looking dangerous? Definitely not, she replied. Nor did any of her “guys’’ ever say: “Ma’am, should we leave?’’


Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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