Who Do You Call When Danger Strikes?

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When a sudden storm traps residents in a flash flood or a python wanders into a home, who comes to the rescue?

Our first thought is the fire department and the police but no, it’s the sight of men and women in blue with orange berets who brave difficult conditions to respond to danger in everyday situations.

Its members, who don the iconic orange-and-blue coloured uniforms, have courageously served Malaysians during countless floods, landslides and rescue operations.

During times of conflict, such as the recent 2013 Lahad Datu invasion, they have played a key role in complementing the military’s efforts by assisting the civilians and providing humanitarian aid.

Who are they?

We are all familiar with the government uniformed bodies that assist the people during hardships in the country, such as the police, fire brigade, armed forces and Red Cross.

However, not many Malaysians are aware of a government agency that specialises in disaster management around the country, which is the Malaysian Civil Defense Department (APM).

In order to give some deserving publicity to this often ‘invisible’ volunteer force, Malaysian Digest paid a visit to the APM Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur to shine the spotlight on these everyday heroes who come from all walks of Malaysian society who sacrifice their time and energy for the nation.

66 Years Of Volunteering As The Country’s First Responders During Emergencies And Disasters

Tracing its roots back to the department’s founding in 1952, the APM is among the country’s first responders during emergencies and disasters, as well as managing rescue and humanitarian operations during troubling times.

Currently, the department employs more than 2,000 officials and 2 million volunteers all over the country.

In terms of its manpower, the department is divided into two divisions: the volunteers who are deployed to the field during a crisis and carry out humanitarian efforts, and the permanent officers which manage the department’s asset and operations on top of serving as volunteers as well.

 “The APM has a team called the Civil Defence Emergency Response Team (CDERT), which consists of volunteers to respond to disasters as fast as possible,” said Ahmad Afandi Mohamad, management director of APM. The CDERT team can also be deployed to other states during major disasters, if the need arises.

Ahmad Afandi Mohamad.Ahmad Afandi Mohamad.Some of the volunteers are also assigned to the District Operation Control Center (PKOD, Pusat Kawalan Operasi Daerah) to standby for non-disaster cases such as animal encroachment into residential areas, traffic accidents or urgent calls for ambulances.

“Throughout the day, volunteers can choose to report in at least one of three shifts: 12am to 8am, 8am to 4pm, or 4pm to 12am,” he explained. The volunteer force of the APM consists of individuals from various backgrounds, with most having their own day jobs outside of their volunteer shifts.

Before being accepted into the department, applicants will be filtered through some basic tests such as fitness, general health and literacy. Once recruited, they will have to attend a 16-hour basic APM course before being sent to a training facility.

Volunteers Will Get Training Completely Free-Of-Charge And Get Paid Allowances

All APM personnel undergo training at one of its three training facilities in Sungai Merap, Baling and Jengka.

While the volunteers and permanent staff go through the same training, the permanent staff will undergo an extra training in a management course.

“The volunteers can pick what course they want to train in such as snake handling, food preparation during disaster, rescues, ambulance driving, medical treatment and many others.

“On top of that, training will be completely free-of-charge,” he emphasised.Pic: APMPic: APM

Volunteers are not considered as a full-time employee with the department but they can work in shifts according to their own schedule, and they will be paid in allowances that depend on the number of hours they serve with the department.

The volunteers are not forced to meet a certain number of shifts, but the department will reward those who have served long enough hours with a bonus allowance, called ‘bounty’, at the end of the year.

Those who have served for many years will also receive commemorative medals for their commitment to the department.

The volunteers can also apply to be a full-time employee for the department as an ASTO (Anggota Sukarela Tugas Operasi, Operational Duty Volunteers) where they can be paid with a monthly salary.

Afandi also encouraged more Malaysians from all races to join APM, so that there will be no shortages of manpower during festive seasons.

“When I was with APM Selangor, I established a Chinese community APM squad at Sungai Pinang, Klang. During the Hari Raya period, most of the Malay APM personnel will take a few days off, so the Chinese personnel will fill in the place of the Malays during that period.

“During the Chinese New Year, the opposite will happen where the Malays can replace the Chinese who are having their holidays,” Afandi explained, adding that similar rotations will happen during Indian celebrations as well.

Throughout their service with APM, volunteers will receive free training and complete uniforms, be able to request for reduction in payments for services in government hospitals, and while on duty they will be insured by the government and APM in case of injuries in the middle of an operation.

APM Is Not The Military Or RELA, But Works With Government Uniformed Bodies

Afandi does admit that the public is not well-aware of APM as much as other rescue agencies such as the fire brigade or the armed forces.

“Before the past two years, our presence during disaster management is not so visible. We don’t have enough assets, and our uniform back then was green in colour, so people thought we were with the military or RELA.

“Now we have changed our uniform colour to blue, more assets at our disposal and flood relief and management centres are now managed by APM before being handed by the Community Welfare Department (JKM), so now people are slowly noticing the department’s presence,” Afandi relayed to Malaysian Digest.

Some of APM's asset at the headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. The vehicle in the top picture is specially for the department's Special Team (Pasukan Khas), a group of specially trained personnel in the APM who are separate from the regular volunteers. Some of APM's asset at the headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. The vehicle in the top picture is specially for the department's Special Team (Pasukan Khas), a group of specially trained personnel in the APM who are separate from the regular volunteers.

While the scope of work between the APM and fire brigade is the same during disaster scenarios, the fire brigade is more focused on responding to fire emergencies.

Afandi explained that during fires, the fire brigade is the on-scene commander, while during disasters the police will act as the on-scene commander, and the APM is the secretariat.

APM often assist other government agencies in their operations, as advocated by the government in the National Blue Ocean Shift (NBOS) for inter-agency cooperations.

“Some hospitals rely heavily on APM ambulances as they don’t have enough ambulances to transport patients,” he elaborated.

Calling All Malaysian, The APM Needs Another Million Volunteers

Recently, APM director Major General (Ret) Datuk Azmy Yahya announced that the department is aiming to recruit another million volunteers into its force.

So what can volunteers expect once they are recruited into the department?

At the APM Headquarters, Malaysian Digest talked to passionate volunteers who were on standby for any emergency calls in the Kuala Lumpur area.

For Safwan, 36, he has found passion in helping the local community through the department.

“I have volunteered in the APM for more than two years. When I first joined the department, I was assigned into the field with the PKOD team.

“A few months later, there was a vacancy in the Operations Control Center, where we would monitor and arrange the movements of APM personnel all over the country and I applied for it. I have worked in this center ever since,” said Safwan, who works as an air-conditioning maintenance worker outside of his APM shifts.

Safwan works in the APM's operations control center, in which the movements of APM nationwide are monitored.Safwan works in the APM's operations control center, in which the movements of APM nationwide are monitored.

Among his duties are to monitor the incoming calls from the public who requested for help as well as the APM activities throughout the country. His office is equipped with various computers and communication devices to coordinate with APM centres in other states.

While the work is manageable during most days, the center can get busy during disasters.

“This center can get extremely busy during major disasters, as well as during festive seasons where we would launch Ops Selamat and Ops Bantu to help with motorists who are experiencing vehicle problems or accidents,” Safwan explained.

Currently, APM is preparing for Ops Selamat and Ops Bantu during the upcoming Chinese New Year in February.

Another volunteer, Nora, who volunteers with the call center of APM, she founds her duty with the department to be challenging but very rewarding.

“As a dispatcher, I am the first person to be in contact with the caller. It can be challenging to be interacting on the phone when the person on the other side is panicking, so it is my duty to calm the other person down and instruct them with the proper actions,” the housewife explained.

She has volunteered with APM since 2010, and when the condition permits she would volunteer six days in a week. The skill as a dispatcher is considered as a very specialised skill, and requires a separate training from the other APM personnel as a certified dispatcher is taught by Telekom Malaysia.

“A dispatcher must be very patient in dealing with panicked callers, and it is my duty to calm them down,” Nora said.

As a dispatcher, Nora (seated) must remain calm in interacting with callers who are often panicking.As a dispatcher, Nora (seated) must remain calm in interacting with callers who are often panicking.

While Nora mostly sits in an office to deal with phone calls, other APM volunteers are on standby to respond to any emergencies.

Lieutenant Shahrul Kamal has been volunteering with the APM for 34 years and is one of the longest-serving members in the Kuala Lumpur APM branch.

“I have participated in countless rescue operations all over the country, such as during the collapse of Highland Towers in 1993 and the explosion of the Bright Sparkles fireworks factory at Sungai Buloh in 1991,” recalled the APM veteran. The latest operation Shahrul involved in was finding a missing hiker at Gunung Nuang last month.

His passion to serve the people was what drove him to enlist with APM more than three decades ago, and he was inspired by his parents who also liked to contribute to the community.

Interestingly, Shahrul is also part of the Arts and Cultural Brigade of APM where members of the department who have backgrounds in music can practice their talents in the center and even perform in public shows. Shahrul himself is proficient in playing caklempong, a traditional Malay instrument.

Lieutenant Shahrul Kamal, who has volunteered for 34 years with APM, is also part of the department's Arts and Cultural Brigade.Lieutenant Shahrul Kamal, who has volunteered for 34 years with APM, is also part of the department's Arts and Cultural Brigade.

“APM volunteers consist of people with many backgrounds, so on top of disaster management and rescue operations, we also utilise the skills and talents of every personnel in the department,” he explained.

Afandi concluded to Malaysian Digest that volunteers in the APM come from many backgrounds and for various reasons, but everyone is united in the passion to serve the community in times of hardship.

“I hope for more members of the public to enlist with APM, not only to serve the nation but to serve themselves as well.

“They can learn valuable life-saving skills throughout their time with APM, such as CPR, handling of domestic fires, first aid, basic trauma life support (BTLS) and many others. Best of all, they can learn all these skills for free,” he concluded.

-- mD