The other side of disaster rescue: Training, waiting, working, and stories of heroes

Published November 18, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Pinky Concha-Colmenares

They go to work when people are advised to stay home; brave the storm to lead people out of harm’s way; enter damaged structures to rescue trapped residents; and do what heroes do — save lives. After work is done, they are just like any worker — they go home to their families, have a meal, and go to sleep.
These group of mostly young people are known as rescuers or responders. Most of them are government employees assigned to a disaster rescue operation team. Others are volunteers with private organizations. In times of disaster, they are there.

We were reminded of the presence of this group of people who are in the job of saving lives when we lost five of them last September at the height of super typhoon Karding which brought heavy rains that flooded areas in Bulacan. The five men, members of the Bulacan Rescue under the Bulacan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (PDRRMO) met death in a flashflood in San Miguel, Bulacan on the night of Sept. 25.

They were: George E. Agustin, Troy Justin P. Agustin, Marby B. Bartolome, Jerson L. Resurrecion, and Narciso Calayag Jr.

There will be many more stories about heroes like them because natural disasters are part of the Philippine landscape. Every year, at least 20 typhoons blow into the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR). The country also sits on the “Ring of Fire” where active volcanoes still threaten communities. Earthquakes add to the natural disasters that claim lives and cause much damage.

A law – Republic Act 10121 – signed in 2010 – institutionalized the national disaster risk reduction and management plan which has created a network of trained responders around the country, under the local government units, and the provincial government units.

EVACUATION – Members of the municipal rescue team and the Philippine National Police assist residents of Barangay Boso-Boso in Laurel, Batangas after the local government announced a forced evacuation due to the Alert Level 3 status of Taal Volcano on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (MB Photo by Mark Balmores)

It is a wide network of men and women who are faceless and unknown, until the next disaster strikes.
Most of these people are either under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Center (NDRRMC), or any of the provincial or local DRRMC units.

We talked to people who worked with these men and women with the heart of heroes, and learned how ordinary their lives are except that – as people around them told us –they all share an extraordinary passion to help people, go through training courses, and work when wind signals, and other disaster signals, tell others to stay home.

Training the rescuers

All rescuers – government employees and volunteers go through training. The list of courses is like an alphabet soup of acronyms which indicate the specialized rescue courses.

“These are conducted by the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) and the 17 regional offices; other agencies of NDRRMC also have their own training,” said Assistant Secretary Bernardo Rafaelito Alejandro IV, Civil Defense Deputy Administrator for Operations, and spokesperson of the NDRRMC.

From the provincial disaster risk reduction management office (PDRRMC) comes more training modules. Maria Luisa Tampican, the operations officer of the Bulacan Rescue from the Bulacan PDRRMC, told us about basic training courses, starting from the first aid training which everybody, including the utility personnel, have to go through. Then there’s a course on ambulance management, water search and rescue (WASAR), Advance firefighting course, collapsed structure search and rescue (CSSAR), urban search and rescue (USS), scuba training, and other training course.

FLOODED STREETS – Members of the rescue team of the Philippine Coast Guard rescue residents of Sultan Kudarat after Typhoon Paeng brought heavy rains and floods on Oct. 28, 2022. (Philippine Coast Guard Photo)

Rescue teams deployed to other areas

Even if the disaster happens outside their areas of responsibility, these “responders” or “rescuers” are deployed to other provinces to help in rescue operations.

According to Alejandro, in 2018, after typhoon Ompong, the NDRRMC organized an inter-agency incident management team with Search Rescue and Retrieval (SRR) teams to go to the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR). In 2020, after three typhoons – Quinta, Rolly and Ulyssess –SRR teams from the NDRRMC were sent to augment operations in Cagayan due to the massive floods.

Recently, after typhoon Agaton, SRR teams were sent to Cebu to help rescue operations in the massive landslide in Baybay and Abuyog, Alejandro said.

The Bulacan PDRRMC Rescue team also participated in several rescue operations outside their area. Ms. Tampican said that the team helped operations in Tacloban after super typhoon Yolanda, in Porac, Pampanga after an earthquake, in Cebu province after a landslide, and recently in Meycauayan after a building collapsed.

Ms. Tampican, 58, with the Bulacan Rescue team for 12 years, knew the five Bulacan heroes quite well. “They called me ‘Mamu’; they were like my children,” she said.

The five Bulacan heroes were all trained, she said. “Jerson from the Santa Maria Rescue, Troy from the office of the governor, and George, the former team leader of Calumpit Rescue – were with us about 10 years. Marby and Narciso were with the team for only almost a year. Narciso was a former volunteer for almost a year before joining the team,” she said.

“All were passionate about their duties. Even if they were hungry, they stand up and respond to a rescue operation,” she said. That morning, Jerson was late and he brought some pizza for the group, she said with a hint of affection to the rescuer she said was closest to her.

“He had a different way of saying ‘opo’ which endeared him to me. “Mabait, pala biro, pareho malakas ang boses namin, (He was a good person, always making jokes; we both had loud voices),” she said, adding that he was also a dog lover.

On the afternoon of Sept. 25, Mamu Malou gave what would be the last operation briefing for the group. As usual, she checked that each had the proper PPE. Then she waved them off before they left to be pre-positioned in a place where they would be on standby for any call for rescue.

Gov’t agencies deploy SRR teams

In other parts of the country, other SRR teams were being deployed, its size determined by the government agency. Alejandro explained that for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, there are usually 11 people in a squad, for the Bureau of Fire Protection, seven members, and for the Metro Manila Development Authority, five to seven members.

“Rescuers are based on the employees of specific agencies. Also, mobilization depends on the event and location of the affected areas. For example, during ‘Karding’, the SRR cluster accounted 117 SRR teams deployed by the AFP, BFP, Philippine Coast Guard, and the Philippine National Police in Regions I, II, III, Calabarzon, V, VI and CAR,” Alejandro said.

Stories told, soon to be legend

When fate calls them from this earth, families and friends will start telling the stories of heroes that will be woven into legends and folk tales. Among these stories will be about the night of Sept. 25 when the five rescuers were sent to San Miguel town to conduct rescue operations in flooded areas. Reports said they were among the 20 rescuers and 30 scout rangers in the municipality. At around 4 a.m. on Sept. 26, others lost contact with the five rescuers, who were found dead hours later.

On Sept. 30, Bulacan province honored them with a water salute, shower of flowers, and a mass, ‘Mamu’ Malu told us, ending our interview because she had to attend the ceremonies.

On Oct. 1, 2022, in honor of their service and courage, the NDRRMC gave a posthumous “Bakas Parangal ng Kagitingan” award to the five heroes.

The award is one of NDRMMC’s most prestigious given to people who “exhibited extraordinary acts of bravery by extending assistance to those in need in times of disaster beyond the call of duty.”