Tuesday, 7 September, a family of four perished in a deadly house fire at Taman Hungab, along Jalan Nosob in Penampang.
50-year-old Matthew Wong, his 47-year-old wife Jecky Vun Kon Fung, and their two sons Brendan and Eric were burnt to death in their double-storey house, according to a report in New Straits Times.
Matthew along with his two sons was found trapped in a room upstairs while Jecky was found in the bathroom in the 2.30am fire, which also destroyed the house and damaged two cars.
Free Malaysia Today reported Sabah Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department (JBPM) director Md Ali Ismail saying that an investigation by the department’s forensics unit found that an electrical overload on the lower level of the house and a fire load caused the blaze to spread quicker.
“It is believed the victims could not save themselves because the ground floor of the house had been filled by smoke and all the windows and exit doors were installed with grilles besides being locked,” Ali said.
Following the incident, it was alleged that the firefighters had lost precious seconds in responding to the fire and questions were raised about the department’s ability to respond quickly and efficiently.
The Star reported former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal sharing a witness account about the emergency call being “too long” as the responder had asked too many questions prior to sending help.
The witness claims that his phone log shows he first dialled 999 at 2.48am, and then at 3.04am, with the firemen arriving a few minutes after the second call. The witness, a neighbour to the perished family, felt that he wasted a lot of time explaining the location of Penampang and Donggongon to the respondent.
By the time the team arrived, the fire had spread from the ground floor to the upper floor of the house.
It turns out the delay was caused due to a call sheet with an inaccurate address and a standard operating procedure (SOP) regarding calls.
The SOP dictates that all MERS999 calls must be directed to Kuala Lumpur (KL) first, before being redirected to the respective stations. The SOP is now being criticised by the Sabah government.
MERS999 stands for Malaysian Emergency Response Services 999.
It includes five departments — the police, Fire and Rescue Department, Malaysian Civil Defence Force, hospital, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Apart from the call centre in KL, the other two are in Melaka, and Kuching, Sarawak.
The neighbour’s claim was confirmed through a statement made by JBPM director Ali, who shared that the MERS999 call centre in Melaka received four calls with the first at 2.49:01am and the second at 2.49:02am.
The call centre staff then obtained four points of information: the name of the caller, the caller’s telephone number, type of emergency, and the address of the incident.
Ali said the information was channelled through the computed-aided dispatch CAD to the JBPM operations centre (PGO) of Sabah as well as the Penampang fire and rescue station.
The state fire and rescue department, however, only received the distress call at 2.52am.
“JBPM had received the information at 2.52am and mobilised a team to the location of the fire. At the same time, the call staff at MERS999 was still continuing the call to get additional information based on the Fire Protocol,” he said, adding that the additional information was channelled to the Sabah JBPM PGO from time to time which would be able to help JBPM plan its operational response strategies.
The team of 11 firemen in two vehicles and an Emergency Services Assistance Unit (ERMS) van could only arrive at the scene at 3.04am — a full 12 minutes later.
This was because, according to Ali, the neighbour had given the wrong address.
The scene of the incident was about 4km away.
Now Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor wants SOP changed.
Hajiji said that the MERS999 SOP needs to be improved so that the same fate is not repeated.
According to a Borneo Post Online report, he remarked that safety issues such as a fire should not be referred to KL first and it wasted time (that could be used) to rescue the victims.
“When the call is known to be from Sabah and there is an emergency, why is it not connected directly to the relevant authority such as the fire station at the district or state that is involved or give a telephone number that can be contacted? There is no need to ask too many questions because each call to the MERS999 is without any doubt related to an emergency,” he said.
“We must be sensitive to the situation and in an emergency, of course, panic will result and there is no time to give all the information needed. I hope the SOP in the MERS999 is changed and made easier including directly connecting the calls to the number or district of state that is involved.”