How homemakers became the firefighters of this low-cost housing community

The Fire Squad volunteers are putting an end to the neighbourhood’s frequent fires.

Azlinda Mat Zin (left) and Mariani Awang are among the 40 Fire Squad volunteers of Apartment Idaman — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

About six year ago, a kitchen fire broke out next door to Mariani Awang’s apartment unit. All she could do at the time was run the opposite direction and wait for the fire department.

But these days, Mariani is running towards the fire instead.

“After that incident with the fire next door, I wanted to learn and be able to respond to emergencies at home,” says the 37-year-old housewife.

Mariani is now one of 40 volunteering members of Apartment Idaman’s Fire Squad, which is largely made up of homemakers that are fully trained and ready to put out fires at a moments notice.

And here at Apartment Idaman, a low-cost housing complex in Damansara Damai, Selangor, things catching fire is not uncommon.

Right after joining the Fire Squad in 2013, Mariani’s training was immediately put into practice when some thrown-away furniture caught fire just a couple of floors above her home.

Mariani, along with her husband, were the first to respond, and managed to extinguish the fire before it spread.

“I think it makes sense for the housewives here to train in being the first line of response. For myself, I am at home most of the time, so I am always available,” Mariani adds.

Joining the squad a year after her is Azlinda Mat Zin, who was inspired by the Fire Squad’s immediate impact on the community.

“Kitchen fires happen often here. It might sound like common knowledge to not leave your stove on, but it happens a lot,” says Azlinda.

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Unattended stoves are the leading cause of house fires in Apartment Idaman. — Photo courtesy of Apartment Idaman Fire Squad

“So it’s important for all of us to know what to do in these situations. Now I’m trained in using the fire hose, the extinguisher, and also in putting out fires using blankets or towels when there are no extinguishers around.”

Frequent fires at close quarters

Apartment Idaman is made up of 2,424 apartment units densely packed into 18 blocks. It is estimated that over 10,000 people live here.

This density is well on Fire Squad Chief Mohd Suhaimi Sabdin’s mind.

“If a fire spreads in this complex, it endangers a large number of people, so it is a high priority to educate the residents,” says Chief Suhaimi.

“I’m sorry to have to put it this way; but being part of a low-income community, awareness needs to start at a very basic level and it takes a lot of convincing to get people to consider taking this seriously.”

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Fire Squad Chief Mohd Suhaimi Sabdin leads the volunteers with his experience of formerly being in the army fire department — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Basic understanding such as not leaving a stove unattended still needs to be taught as a key message. Because as Chief Suhaimi reveals, there were at least ten cases of kitchen fires back in 2013 alone.

“It was happening too frequently, where someone would leave the stove on to heat up food and then leave to go to the store,” he says.

The danger didn’t end there. The apartment complex being densely populated meant that the roads are always congested with cars. This has on multiple occasions blocked and slowed down fire trucks from entering and putting out fires.

“We recognised that we needed to be able to mobilise an initial response team during these emergencies for everyone’s safety,” says Chief Suhaimi.

Over 10,000 people live in the 18 blocks of Apartment Idaman — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Squad goals

The Apartment Idaman Resident Association (IRAS) had in 2012 decided that the fire problem needed to be addressed.

Chief Suhaimi was approached to lead the Fire Squad. As a retiree from the army fire department, the association agreed that he was the perfect candidate to be made chief.

“We decided to start with a basic safety talk that was open to all the residents. We tried attracting them to attend by giving out free t-shirts to the first 100 people,” Chief Suhaimi explains.

“The event allowed us to find potential volunteers to train and form the Fire Squad.”

Volunteers were trained in basic firefighting skills by the local fire department, which is now an annual event that serves as both an introduction for new volunteers as well as a compulsory refresher for older volunteers.

The Fire Squad attends annual basic firefighting training to ensure their own safety when performing their duties — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Following the setting up of the Fire Squad, every block has been equipped with fire extinguishers that are kept near volunteers’ homes for quicker response.

The resident association even invested in their own firehoses, which is used by the trained volunteers, or as backup hoses for the fire department in cases where the fire truck can’t enter the complex.

Investing in both awareness and a dedicated response team has led to immediate improvements. Incidents have gone down every year, with 2017 recording only one case of a fire, and so far, no cases for 2018.

“We are looking to expand to more types of training so the team will have more skills. Last year we did first aid training, conducted by the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART) trainers,” says Chief Suhaimi.

Fostering a collaborative community

It is important to note that the Fire Squad is no fluke in community activation. It is only one of Apartment Idaman’s many well-lauded community programmes.

The residents’ association, IRAS, has been quick to act in crises faced by its community.

In 2011, it was discovered that many of the children in Apartment Idaman were not vaccinated due to clinics being too far away, which led to IRAS collaborating with the Petaling District Health Office to run health screenings right in the community hall. This collaboration eventually led to a public clinic being opened for nearby to the benefit of the entire Damansara Damai township.

In 2012, it was discovered that Apartment Idaman was the top dengue hotspot in Petaling Jaya. To combat this, IRAS collaborated with researchers from the National University of Malaysia (UKM) to develop cheaply made mosquito traps. This led to the establishing of the Search and Destroy Aedes Ranger (Sedar) programme by the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) with Apartment Idaman being the model for its execution in other townships.

And if you were to ask someone who lives here about who is responsible for the mobilisation of the community, the answer will likely be IRAS Chairman Azizan Suradi.

Azizan Suradi (Cikgu) held the position of chairman for both the Joint Management Body and the residents’ association IRAS for six years to ensure effective collaboration between both bodies — Photo by Aizyl Azlee

Fondly known as Cikgu (his day job is teaching at a vocational school), he famously ran for the position of Joint Management Body (JMB) chairman despite already being the chairman of IRAS. With the strong backing of the residents, he was given the opportunity to head both bodies.

“There was a problem back then, where the JMB and the resident association were not working collaboratively. It was very important for both bodies to be in sync if we wanted to make any progress,” he says.

As he explains, with the JMB and IRAS working together, a programme like the Fire Squad could be mobilised more efficiently because the resident association can fully focus on managing volunteers while the JMB can focus on acquiring and maintaining the assets such as the fire extinguishers.

His tenure saw management fee collections from residents grow from a struggling 20% at the start of his term to an impressive 84% in 2017. Cikgu sees it as being a direct show of support for the initiatives that have been organised for the community, because residents wouldn’t be enthusiastically paying their fees otherwise.

Last year, Cikgu stepped down as JMB chairman after a six-year term to make way for the newer management. He however remains the chairman of IRAS.

“I just wanted to put a system in place where both bodies can collaborate, because we can achieve so much if people work together,” Cikgu shares.

“I hope the community programmes can continue and be sustainable. I want it to change outsiders’ perception of people who live in low-cost flats. We’re not the bad people that they think we are.”

To find out more about the Apartment Idaman Fire Squad, you can visit their Facebook page.

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