It took 30 years to double the number of divers at the fire service
As soon as Abul Khair received the news of a deadly collision between two launches at Dhaka’s Sadarghat on Monday that killed 34 people, he rushed to the spot as one of the first responders and dived in the Buriganga River to rescue people from the spot.
He jumped into the river to save people, but unfortunately he could only recover bodies, not people alive.
“If we had more divers, the rescue operation would have been much faster,” said Khair, team leader of divers at Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD).
According to him, more divers and more modern equipment have become a necessity for the fire service unit to efficiently conduct rescue operations in any waterways incident.
Khair, who joined the fire service as a diver 30 years ago on July 2, said the service was ready to sacrifice the lives of its employees for people, but recruiting more manpower in the unit had become essential.
Currently, only 50 divers are employed with the FSCD, an important unit for rescuing victims in waterways accidents. The unit has remained ill-equipped for decades despite such accidents increasing in the country.
Officials concerned have said the unit had only 25 staff during its formation in 1990 and it took 30 years for the unit to double its manpower to 50 people.
When asked, Assistant Director (operations) of the Fire Service Abdul Hakim said they had sent a letter to the home ministry in 2018 seeking recruitment of 215 divers so that the service could deploy at least four divers at 42 river stations.
“But we received only 25 in the last two years,” he said.
And of these 25 divers, most cannot join in deep diving rescue operations yet as they are still at the training stage.
Newly recruited divers need seven months of training on diving, and one to three months of naval training. Then they need to take a year-long professional training. As almost all of the new divers are still in training stages and so the fire service could not use them to its full capacity, said Hakim.
Why more divers are of crucial importance
Whenever an accident occurs on the waterways, these divers are always called in to conduct rescue operations.
If a major accident takes place, the FSCD faces enormous problems as small accidents also happen across the country and resources are stretched thin.
When these divers are sent to tackle the aftermath of an accident, they cannot conduct rescue operations properly as they are not well equipped.
They cannot even carry out searches at depths greater than 30 feet because they are all shallow water divers, officials said.
There are 20 divers in Dhaka Division, nine in Chittagong, 6 each in Mymensingh and Sylhet and three each in Khulna, Barisal and Rajshahi.
“If two major accidents take place at a time, we face many problems in dealing with those. If we send divers to one spot, another operation is hampered. Moreover, we are not well equipped,” said Khair.
At least 3,654 people have been killed while 489 have remained missing since 1991.
A total of 570 vessels have sunk in rivers across Bangladesh during this time frame. Of them, 236 were passenger vessels and 146 were cargo vessels, official statistics show.
Fire service officials opined that the number of divers should be increased soon and all divers should be given training and proper equipment.
“In major river accidents, fire service divers risk their lives, not naval officers or BIWTA officials. We need proper training,” said Khair.
“Our job is to dive in shallow water during any accident, but we have had to go deep diving and assist in rescue operations as manpower is inadequate,” said the team leader.
A diver needs a three-hour break after one hour of diving, but the fire service divers can mostly take only 30-40 minutes breaks because of insufficient manpower, he adds.
When contacted, FSCD’s Director General Brig Gen Md Sazzad Hossain said the home ministry had been requested to appoint four divers each in a district, but the ministry had sanctioned only three divers each for a division.
“Even so, we are trying,” he said.
Mallick Sayeed Mahbub, joint secretary at the Security Services Division of the home ministry, however, claimed that the ministry had not received any letter.