KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 — Not all superheros wear capes. Some instead don a fire retardant coverall and head out to risk it all for others, with no expectation of pay at all.
For those in the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association (MVFRA), this thankless duty and responsibility must also be juggled with their own full-time jobs and personal obligations.
Among their past exploits include participating in global search and rescue (SAR) operations such as the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Acheh, Indonesia, the 2008 tremor in Sichuan, China, and most recently, the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Red Zone personnel put their lives on the line when they participate in regional and international operations under banner of the Malaysian International SAR team (Misar) led by MVFRA founder K. Balasupramaniam.
Joining such operations, volunteers face hazards such as entrapment, collapsing debris, and aftershocks that could prove injurious or even fatal.
Only those who undertake the rigorous training to become Red Zone personnel qualify to take part in such rescues, but joining the qualification comes with a heavy demand on their time, requiring weekly trainings to maintain.
Yet without getting a single sen in return, these volunteer firefighters told Malay Mail they were glad to serve.
Teresa Lim Sin Lee, 42, works as a marketing manager for a local mall by day and a volunteer firefighter during nights and weekends.
She discovered the MVFRA through a newspaper recruitment advertisement back in the 90s when she was still schooling, joining in 1995 and rising through its ranks to become both its secretary and a qualified Red Zone responder.
Lim said she was moved to join after watching powerlessly as a friend’s house was razed to the ground.
“I wanted to help then but I could not. I am glad I made the right decision after I was influenced by my elder sister who joined earlier,” she said.
For many, simply finding time just for one job is already a challenge, but MVFRA volunteers must squeeze out extra hours for their trainings and volunteer shifts.
Lim said it was taxing, but possible with proper time management.
“I clock in daily for our evening shift from 8.30pm to 10.30pm every Monday to Friday, even though I have a nine-to-five job prior to that,” she told Malay Mail.
She explained that time was not the biggest obstacle to volunteerism, but motivation. Lim said she was fortunate to have a strong support structure via her family, which kept her driven and committed on days when her energy may be flagging.
“For those being hesitant to being a volunteer, they should take the leap of faith and step out of their comfort zone, because all those scepticism they face can be solved when you're actually on the job,” she said.
Another part-time hero is Lai Puei-Yiee, 32, who runs her own law firm in the city.
She joined the group during one of its recruitment drives for its new Animal Search and Rescue Unit in 2013 because she was an animal lover and has remained a volunteer since.
Lai conceded to the pressures of serving in the volunteer unit, saying she has contemplated giving up due to the demands on her time and energy.
“It does get hectic at times when you have activities planned for both sides, but I have a bit of flexibility in my time management and at the end of the day, you learn to balance things,” she said.
A Misar rescue worker during the 2016 Pidie Jaya Aceh Earthquake Relief Operation in Indonesia, Lai said taking part in such activities were dangerous and even deadly.
However, she said she was driven to continue as she did not want to lead a life devoid of exploits and adventure.
“When you grow old... there will be no stories to be told or cherished.
“Some of my friends even asked why would I spend so much time on such activities but that only made my resolve stronger,” she said.
For the greater good
A volunteer of 15 years, Noordin Malib, 49, said he simply wanted to do something for the community.
With his background in corporate health and safety, Noordin said joining the MVFRA was a natural transition, but conceded to feeling some difficulty initially when dealing with the deaths and tragedies that come with being a Red Zone responder.
“However each one of them has a lesson to be learned and a precious experience that I can cherish when we get ourselves involved,” he said.
He said he has learned to motivate himself by not thinking about rewards for the things he does, especially as a permanent volunteer firefighter.
“Its fulfilling when we educate others and we should never be selfish in imparting knowledge,” he said.
Another health and safety officer, Mohd Nor Salim Mohd Manshor, 50, is a contemporary of Noordin’s as both were former colleagues.
He said being a volunteer was challenging, but the determination to help others spurred him on.
“I participated in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake SAR operation and it is a bittersweet feeling when we discover a dead person among the rubble, it was worse when it is an incomplete corpse,” he said.
“What is important is that it comes sincerely from within our heart,” he said of his motivations to continue volunteering.
Marketing executive Jenilyn Alexia, 28, said she did not expect to last long in the MVFRA after joining in 2013, but said she surprised herself with the passion she discovered in volunteering.
Also a qualified Red Zone responder, she said many among the public may find themselves equally surprised if they take up volunteer work, saying such activities were often full of positivity.
“[It] is a place to discover oneself,” she said, adding that something must be done to break the never-ending cycle of selfishness in today’s world.