Sajitha’s Tragic End | Daily News

Sajitha’s Tragic End

The entire nation was sent into great shock after seeing the tragic death of a 14-year-old schoolboy Sajitha Gunaratne. Judging by what we have seen on TV it is obvious that this unwanted death could have been prevented.

There is no use in conducting road inspections now after an innocent boy was swallowed by a rampaging flow of water, as he was just walking home from school. I can imagine the unbearable grief and pain of his beloved parents. No form of compensation can resurrect a son. Sri Lankans in keeping with their deep and stupid allegiance to superstition and horoscope will gladly blame it upon some bad omen- as they are unable to digest reality. This has been the common and easy escape route for Government officials in almost every such case of willful negligence. Those agencies tasked with the job of enhancing safety on roads are guilty of this. All relevant Government agencies who failed in their official duty have blood on their hands. I sincerely hope this sad incident will be the turning point where officials do their duty with dignity and also where Sri Lankans will wake up from their blissful ignorance and be more concerned about public safety-in every realm.

One of the key issues I want to address today is the need to improve our response time (with proper crew coordination) to any form of emergency at any given location. In the case of the Kurunegala incident the young boy fell into a storm water drain, and thankfully at least some men nearby had seen the victim falling inside and raised the alarm. Whilst those standing nearby rushed to the scene, we don’t have an established timeline (with responsibility) to show how and when professional emergency responders arrived at the scene. We must appreciate the Sri Lanka Police and Army personnel who volunteered to engage in this difficult rescue, amidst the pouring rain. The question here is how well do we manage our resources under a unified command structure to safely coordinate a sensitive rescue effort like this, in a difficult location with flowing water? This tragedy could have occurred anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Emergency response mechanisms

I will ask our readers to pause for a few moments and understand the background of our emergency response mechanisms. Having extensively travelled with the Armed Forces and Special Task Force I can say that the Armed Forces and STF are well trained and have reasonably modern equipment to initiate a good and safe rescue. All of their rescue equipment can be further upgraded if the Government wishes to be on par with global first responders- because this investment saves human lives. The Sri Lanka Army has always led the efforts of ground rescue as specialized regiments like the Special Forces and Commando Regiment have the skills, courage and motivation to engage in dangerous tasks, which is not the same level of commitment shown by local regional responders. During landslides and earth slips soldiers have done a good job in rescuing civilians. Commando Regiment of SLA even has a unit of trained Cadaver sniffing dogs (dog breed used Beagles) to locate persons buried under mud or other contaminated soil conditions. I have written on this topic before. Likewise the Sri Lanka Navy has specialized units for water borne rescue operations, including the deployment of tactical divers capable of diving by day or night. Sri Lanka Air Force has displayed their prowess in airborne rescue missions. The Police STF also have trained paramedics and rescue teams, of who are stationed along the Southern Expressway. The Armed Forces and STF team have engaged in combined annual training drills to enhance the ‘inter- operability’ of forces concept. This is highly commendable. The Department of Disaster Management was set up in Sri Lanka, and performs reasonably well. They need to be duly empowered with funds and manpower resources to expand their operations across the country adhering to global standards.

But the question remains how advanced and trained are our regional civilian first responders? I have previously written about the Colombo Fire Brigade. This team is well trained and dedicated but they need an upgrade for their fire engine trucks and other resources, especially as Colombo City is growing with so many high rise towers. Colombo City has a need for an increased number of water hydrants- to be used by fire response crews responding to an emergency. All Government first responders must get a decent salary and good welfare as they perform an important task, saving human lives.

First Responders in Sri Lanka are always restricted to the Fire Brigade, Ambulance service and the Police. Judging from past incidents it is when these three agencies fail that they call in the military responders. I have lived in both America and Australia and seen the excellent work done by specialized rescue units of certain counties and municipalities. The heavy trucks and tools used by such teams are probably not available in Sri Lanka, and won’t be as long as corrupt politicians influence decision making to steal from Government tenders. Local counties overseas have their own rescue helicopters. For seven decades Sri Lanka has only relied on the Air Force for air mobility in search and rescue. This is not a good thing as the original role and task of any Air Force in the world is combat duty oriented and rescuing civilians is a second priority. I have always advocated that at least for a start the Colombo Fire Brigade and Police must have a minimum of two helicopters for independent search and rescue missions. Then again perhaps this is a dream that won’t become a reality at least for another 25 years!!

All developed nations use high-tech drones to monitor search and rescue tasks. Again for Sri Lanka it has become a habit to depend on the SLAF for this facility. This mind set of depending and borrowing by Government agencies must change.

In the tragic incident at Kurunegala we saw a backhoe being used, in an attempt to break the culvert. It is obvious that this backhoe operator was not a trained and certified person for the rescue task. He was simply a kind and helpful Sri Lankan who pitched in to help during this crisis. Even with the good and brave effort of the Police and Army volunteers, it took more than 1 hour to rescue the boy. He has been soaked in dirty water for so long he would have already suffered from hypothermia, along with great anxiety within the first 30 minutes. Even after he was taken out there was no warm blanket to wrap around his soaked and weak body (as seen on TV). Some angry citizens say that if he was the child of a VVIP he would have been rescued more swiftly and even airlifted to Colombo. Do you endorse this public view? This raises another red flag. How well equipped are our regional hospitals in responding to trauma and major accident victims? What is the level of rural hospitals where they may have a victim who has been attacked by an elephant or mauled by a leopard? Do they have the resources to transfer ICU level accident victims to base hospitals and the Colombo General Hospital within the required time to save them? For the record I must say the NHS Colombo has a well-trained and professional Accident Service Unit with dedicated doctors and nurses who have decades of on the job experience in triage and trauma care.

Avoid gatherings

Another issue has to be mentioned here. In all incidents in Sri Lanka the public, often in their willingness to help crowd around and tend to hinder the sensitive work of emergency responders. This is a sign of their kindness but we as a nation must not unwantedly gather at ongoing rescue sites unless we can help in any professional way- ie a doctor or nurse or some type of safety expert. Few weeks ago when Wildlife officers were trying to rescue a dangerous leopard, villagers had gathered around to watch, how foolish of them indeed. Colombo Fire Brigade officers have confided in me of how people gather at fire rescue sites trying to take videos putting themselves in danger. This ignorant behaviour must stop and the public become more responsible. I suggest first aid lessons must be made mandatory for all O/L and A/L grade students so that they become aware of safety as adults. Anyone can save another person in an emergency.

Follow up after a headline making story fades away after two weeks in Sri Lanka. Last year a ferry capsized in Kinniya, Trincomalee killing nine schoolchildren. Many flaws in safety were found. A foundation stone was then laid to build a new bridge for the villagers. One year later the bridge has not been built as desired. The blame game goes on. Some years ago an underage youth drove a van crashing it into a bus stand killing a few schoolgirls. There was a big drama and short lived media campaign by the Traffic Police about safety and reforms to school vans, with a suggestion to paint school vans in yellow like overseas school buses. Years later nothing was done. Villagers in remote areas cross rivers and deep ravines on unsafe rope bridges. This is the reality in Sri Lanka. How many other disasters are waiting to happen? Government agencies and police please act with prudence and strong initiative. Safety is about prevention and not intervention after a preventable accident or incident. Every life is important to their family.



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