In this concluding segment of our two-part feature on SCDF's Operation Lionheart (OLH) mission in Kahramanmaraş, Türkiye, Rescue995 spoke to Colonel (COL) Chew Keng Tok, Commander of the OLH Contingent, and officers from the Emergency Behavioural Sciences & CARE unit (EBSC), Home Team Specialist (HTS) Ms Khoo Swee Giang, Lead Psychologist, and Lieutenant (LTA) Khoo Chong Wee, Emergency Readiness Officer, who reflected on the contingent’s accomplishments and experiences during the deployment.
Continuous Learning and Betterment - The Key to Success
COL Chew praised the contingent for their confidence, adaptability, and exceptional performance throughout their mission in Kahramanmaraş, highlighting the importance of mutual support and assistance amongst the OLH members as they went about their mission tasks. He also expressed gratitude to the Singapore Embassy in Ankara for their invaluable aid in facilitating transportation, logistics and translation services.
This is not COL Chew’s first OLH mission – he was part of the OLH contingent that was deployed to the central Java Earthquake in May 2006. According to COL Chew, there is no secret formula to the success of a OLH deployment but rather, through a thorough post-mission review after each deployment, officers identify room for improvements, learning and further capability development. With this mindset of continuous improvement, the concept of SCDF’s OLH contingent has evolved over the years to become a Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team, classified by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). With the Heavy USAR classification, SCDF’s OLH contingent is self-sufficient in logistics and skillsets, and able to operate in the field at two independent rescue sites, round the clock, for a period of ten consecutive days. Thanks to the conscientious work put in by officers involved in the 19 previous OLH deployments, SCDF has developed a comprehensive and robust Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to guide OLH training, preparations, operations, including homebase support during deployments.
COL Chew Keng Tok, Contingent Commander, briefing the two teams prior to their deployment in the city centre to conduct assessment operations
“Operating in winter conditions was one of the main challenges faced by our team, as we are more accustomed to Singapore’s tropical climate. Although we had prepared substantial winter clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) for colder temperatures, there was still much more that we could have done to ‘winter-proof’ our basecamp. We will learn from these lessons and make the necessary preparations for future missions,” said COL Chew.
COL Chew further emphasised on the importance of teamwork, the focus on safety, and interdependence among all contingent members, as they worked together as a team to accomplish the mission tasks assigned to them. OLH contingent members must also be resilient in the face of adversity and be compassionate to understand the suffering of disaster victims and assist them as best to the best of their abilities.
COL Chew Keng Tok (left) presenting a USAR suit to a local resident
Courage, Compassion and Camaraderie
LTA Khoo Chong Wee, Emergency Readiness Officer (left) and Ms Khoo Swee Giang, Lead Psychologist (right)
Rescue995: Upon hearing that you would be deployed to Türkiye, what were the first thoughts and emotions that crossed your mind? How did they shape your expectations for the mission?
LTA Chong Wee: Upon learning of the earthquake in Türkiye, I was mentally prepared for the OLH activation. As Valentine's Day was around the corner, I promptly made some changes to my plans with my significant other.
When my loved ones knew of my involvement in this mission, they were naturally concerned for my safety, but they still gave their steadfast support. I believe that my family understands the significance of our endeavours, not only for SCDF, but also for Singapore as a whole. With all the stringent safety measures and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that we operate under, their concerns on safety were alleviated.
Ms Khoo: When I first knew of the deployment, I realised that I may have to miss my daughter's fifth birthday celebration, which we have been planning for and eagerly anticipating for the past few months. Thankfully, my husband addressed my concerns with his unwavering support and encouraged me to prepare for the deployment. We had a brief dinner to celebrate our daughter's birthday in advance and made slight adjustments to our daily routine before the deployment.
Throughout my 15-year career with the SCDF, I sincerely believed in the crucial role that psychologists can play in overseas humanitarian missions. After the formal inclusion of psychologists in the OLH contingent in 2018, we have been rostered for OLH deployments. This mission to Türkiye is significant to Emergency Behavioural Sciences & CARE unit (EBSC), as it marked the first occasion in which our psychologists were deployed together with the OLH contingent.
That being said, I did have my concerns prior to the deployment. At this stage of my life, I have family commitments, so safety was of paramount concern to me. Yet, I was put at ease by the presence of experienced colleagues in the contingent and by SCDF's experience and competency in managing overseas missions. Furthermore, the presence of Paracounsellors among the contingent members was a source of comfort. As EBSC and the Paracounsellors often work closely together, we knew that we could also count on each other for support.
Rescue995: This is the first time that EBSC psychologists have been deployed for OLH. What is the significance of this? How was your role vital for the mission and contingent members?
Ms Khoo: Back in 2008, when the OLH contingent was deployed to the Sichuan earthquake, I had a conversation with my colleagues about how impactful it would be if psychologists could provide on-site support during such missions. At that point of time, it might have sounded far-fetched as the EBSC was not part of the OLH contingent yet. EBSC’s deployment to Türkiye is a significant milestone, as it embodies our long-held aspirations for psychology to play a more substantial role in supporting operations and missions.
As the inaugural team of EBSC psychologists to be deployed, we have gained invaluable exposure and experience to real-life rescue work alongside the contingent, familiarising ourselves with the routines, procedures, and challenges of an overseas deployment. With this experience, we can plan and prepare for how to better support the OLH contingent for future deployments.
Then (left, 2018) and now (right, 2023) — Ms Khoo and LTA Chong Wee replicated similar poses which Ms Stephanie Lim (former EBSC psychologist) and CPT Poh Han Wei (former Emergency Readiness Officer) did. Much has changed since then
LTA Chong Wee: The inclusion of EBSC in this deployment underscores SCDF's commitment to prioritise psychological well-being as a vital component for such missions. People are not wrong to assume that the primary responsibilities of the EBSC includes counselling and facilitating mental health-related workshops. These endeavours help to foster resilience in our people and contribute to operational effectiveness. Being involved in such missions paves the way for future opportunities to contribute to operations-related work.
As an EBSC officer in this mission, our main responsibility is to ensure that contingent members are in an optimal mental state. To assess their well-being, we conduct morale sensing, which allows us to ascertain if they have any concerns arising from the operations. Through the feedback obtained, we can effectively identify and address issues, which may range from simple welfare provisions to more complex matters. Maintaining high morale throughout such missions is of paramount importance, as it is intrinsically linked to rescuer performance and safety.
Ms Khoo (fourth from left) and Paracounsellor-trained officers from the contingent
Rescue995: What were some of the ways that you conducted morale sensing?
Ms Khoo: As members of the contingent, we set up the Base of Operations (BoO) together, have meals together and interact together at the fireplace. These shared experiences are conducive for natural and informal engagement, in which we can assess the well-being and mental state of our colleagues. As OLH contingent members, we genuinely demonstrate care and concern for one another, fostering a sense of camaraderie and mutual support.
LTA Chong Wee engaging the OLH contingent members after a mission
Ms Khoo (fourth from the left) and the OLH contingent
Rescue995: What were the experiences that left the deepest impression on you?
LTA Chong Wee: For me, the most emotional moments arose during our interactions with the local population in Türkiye. Despite their great losses in this disaster, they remained resilient and gracious. During the instances that we crossed paths, they never hesitated to express their gratitude by offering food and refreshments. These small acts of kindness in the face of this devastating disaster, were truly heart-warming. Although we were there to help the locals, I think they also reciprocated by supporting us in any way they could.
Ms Khoo: Unlike Chong Wee, I did not have the opportunity to interact directly with the locals, as most of my work was carried out within the BoO. Nevertheless, being an integral part of the contingent has had a profound impact on me. Although I have served as a psychologist in SCDF for many years and interacted with many colleagues when managing the EBSC Paracounsellor Scheme, this first-hand experience of seeing them overcome various challenges at work is quite distinct. It is truly an honour and privilege for me to support the contingent in this capacity.
Ms Khoo (front row, fifth from the left) and LTA Chong Wee (front row, fifth from the right) with Commissioner Eric Yap (centre) at the Welcome Reception after returning to Singapore from the OLH deployment