Hanging by a cable

Rescuers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team approaching a cable car during a cable car rescue drill at Mount Faber.

SINGAPORE - One misstep and it would be a 30-storey plunge into the trees below.

Rescuers had to deal with poor lighting conditions and strong winds.

But the cable car rescue drills at Mount Faber are necessary and carried out at least thrice a year by the Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Dart).

Thirty-one years ago, seven people died in a cable car accident there and the authorities are determined not to let it happen again.

Last Thursday, The New Paper observed a team of seven Dart rescuers in action during the hour-long exercise at Faber Peak.

The scenario: A cable car was stranded with two casualties in it.

At around 10pm, the Dart personnel arrived at the cable car station and immediately began preparing their harnesses, ropes, carabiners, pulleys and helmets.

Each team member had a specific task like setting up the ropes, checking and securing the lines,and looking out for their teammates' safety.

At about 11.30pm, when everything was in place, two of them took turns to traverse about 30m towards the cable car, which was dangling from a height of about 90m.

When they reached it, they got on the roof and secured themselves to it. One of them then climbed down the side, opened the door and entered the cable car.

Soon after, the first "casualty" emerged wearing a harness attached to the rope system that the team had set up. He stepped off the cable car and was pulled towards the cable car station via the rope system operated by a battery-powered pulley. Rescue officers were waiting for him at the station.

It was a similar procedure to rescue the other "casualty", before the two Dart rescuers returned back to the cable car station by 12.30am.

Staff Sergeant Mohd Shafie, 35, one of the rescuers that night, considered Thursday's exercise smooth and successful.

He admitted he had been afraid of heights when he started out with Dart some 13 years ago.

He said: "I had years of continuous training, which included rappelling, first, from four storeys, then eight, then from 100m in height. Eventually, I overcame my fear. We never stop training."

His team leader, Captain Foo Ying Kai, 37, also admitted that a slight dose of fear keeps them on their toes.

"It prevents complacency from setting in," he said.

PERFECTING

Captain Foo, who has been with Dart for eight years, said the teams are constantly exploring new equipment and methods in perfecting their rescue operations.

The SCDF takes its training seriously and sent a Dart team in March 2000 to France to learn about cable car rescue operations.

The training took place along the ski slopes of the alps in Valloire, southern France. The team then went to England, where they picked up roping, climbing, rigging and high-angle rescue techniques.

All this were made into a training syllabus for today's Dart officers.

Mr Favian Ooi, Mount Faber Leisure Group's senior assistant director for operations and project development, said its emergency preparedness procedures are routinely tested during rescue exercises like this.

He said: "We conduct in-house table-top and ground deployment exercises annually to ensure our employees are up to date on their roles."

Dart commander Lieutenant Colonel Alan Toh acknowledged that such cable car exercises are risky.

"But these risks are mitigated with constant training, focus on safety and teamwork," he said.

"When a crisis happens, a lot of people will be watching and there will be a lot of pressure. We rotate everyone in the different roles to make sure everyone is familiar with the whole process.

"Practice is very important."

ABOUT THE ENIWETOK TRAGEDY

Jan 29, 1983, changed the cable car safety here.

At 6pm that day, drillship Eniwetok was being towed from its berth in Keppel Wharf when tragedy struck.

The ship was 69m in height - 9cm taller than the cableway that held up the cable cars.

Its gantry tower snagged one of the two cable car lines, sending two cable cars plunging 18 storeys into the water.

Seven passengers died in the waters near Jardine Steps as the cars sank.

Another 13 passengers were stranded in four remaining carriages for another eight hours.

They were rescued by helicopters from the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

REOPENED

The cable car system, which started running in 1974, only re-opened seven months later.

Up to 1982, it transported 900,000 passengers annually, but this fell to about 650,000 after the incident. Passenger numbers returned to normal only from 1987.

The cable car system is checked annually while its carriages are checked for cracks and wear and tear every five years.

Since 2011, a comprehensive regulatory framework was established under the Amusement Rides Safety Act which confers power on the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) to regulate the fire and rescue management system of amusement rides in Singapore.

Operators must have an effective emergency response plan which includes providing escape routes for patrons and emergency access routes for SCDF rescue operations during an emergency.


This article was first published on July 21, 2014.
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