COL Chew Keng Tok holding his well-deserved medallion.
Meet COLONEL (COL) Chew Keng Tok who has spent over 16 years as a member of the elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). COL Chew had graduated from the 10th DART Specialist Course in 2003. He joined the elite unit as a Platoon Commander from 2003 to 2006, and later led the unit as the DART Commander for close to five years since 2015. On 26 October 2020, COL Chew was one of the eight DART members who received a medallion each for their immense contributions to the unit over the years. Today, he is the Commander of 2nd SCDF Division.
At present, DART has 120 active and reserve members. The 46 reserve members are staff helming key appointments at the various SCDF units from Division headquarters, fire stations to the Civil Defence Academy.
Rescue 995: What motivated you to join the DART unit and how was it like for you being a member of DART all those years?
COL Chew: I came across an article on DART many years ago and after researching more about the vocation, I was inspired to join. I like the complex and specialised operations that DART is constantly involved in.
Saving lives and helping those in distress is my passion. Besides rescuing and saving lives locally, DART is also part of the SCDF’s Operations LionHeart (Ops LionHeart) contingent for overseas humanitarian and disaster relief operations. Ops Lionheart exposed me to mega disasters overseas and opened up an enriching experience for me to make a difference to those in distress far beyond the shores of Singapore.
Being a member of DART also taught me to be a robust responder and quick-thinking rescuer. For example, DART rescuers are always ready on the go, on ‘high throttle’ to improve and at times improvise our strategies in intricate ground or height rescue operations. It has been such an honourable and fulfilling journey for me to be part of this elite team in SCDF.
Rescue 995: Share with us some of the memorable operations you have attended to in your DART career.
One memorable operation was in April 2004 when the Nicoll Highway
collapsed. It was my first year in the unit. I recall that the disaster
occurred due to the collapse of a segment of the Mass Rapid Transit
(MRT) Circle Line at Nicoll Highway. The collapse caused a massive
cave-in of the highway. The already complex search and rescue operation
was made all the more challenging by water from the nearby Kallang river
flooding the cavities within the collapsed highway, some as deep as
five metres below ground.
The massive devastation and the full view of the cave-in of the Nicoll Highway.
COL Chew Keng Tok (facing the camera), then CAPTAIN Chew, and fellow DART rescuers conducting underwater search operation in trying to locate a victim trapped in the water.
Back then, although DART had equipment for surface-water rescue operations, we were not yet equipped for underwater diving operations to enable us to conduct search and rescue operations in deep waters. Nonetheless, we did not let this deter us for we improvised our breathing apparatus set (pressurised oxygen cylinders) meant for firefighting operations to be used instead for underwater search operation, and successfully located and extracted a body caught between a site-office container and the rear double-axle tyres of a sunken tipper truck.
This incident became such an invaluable learning point for DART. Since then, DART has developed and expanded on its capabilities. The officers are now not only trained in open water diving but are also well equipped with latest Surface Supplied Diving Equipment (SSDE), which provides a good supply of air to the DART divers, enabling them to perform prolonged underwater search and rescue operations. And in locating victim underwater, DART divers are equipped with underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) which uses sonar technology and an in-build camera to facilitate them to pinpoint the exact location of the victim.
The Surface Supplied Diving Equipment (SSDE) allows DART divers to perform prolonged underwater search and rescue operations in deep waters.
Another operation that I could recall clearly was an Operation LionHeart mission. In May 2006, my LionHeart contingent members and I were deployed to Bantul, 40km south of Yogyakarta, Indonesia to conduct search and rescue operations after a massive earthquake struck the area. During the 10-day deployment, we worked closely with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Indonesian military as well as the United Nations On-Site Operations Command Centre. Our SCDF medical team and the SAF medical team also supported each other and jointly attended to the earthquake victims.
I vividly recalled in the mid of our 10-day mission, DART members were required to assist the local rescuers to search for an elderly man who was reported missing. The local rescuers informed that the elderly man would often go hiking on a particular track along the steep mountain. In short, it was a complex search operation along the steep slope of a mountain. The body of the elderly man was ultimately found, and he was crushed and trapped underneath a huge boulder, a massive rock that had rolled off the mountain top as a result of the earthquake.
The toughest part of the operation was to extricate the elderly man from the huge boulder. As the boulder was in a highly precarious position with potential to fall further down the steep mountain, great care was taken to first ensure that the rock was well stabilised. This called for an on-site improvisation of having the local rescuers to help gather timber logs to form a firm timber crib stack to stabilise the rock. Simultaneously, DART rescuers set up our hydraulic and air lifting tools to lift the rock. We were all mindful that the lifting and extrication operations on the steep mountain slope was challenging as any sudden slip or unwarranted movement could jeopardise the safety of the rescuers involved. After several hours in the scorching sun, we finally accomplished the extrication operation. I remember this episode so clearly due to the common purpose, firm trust and sound coordination between the local authorities and DART rescuers. Someone even commented that it was a good manifestation of ASEAN solidarity.
DART rescuers working with the local authorities and rescuers in search of a missing person on a mountain at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2006.
Rescue 995: As a veteran DART officer, what are your words of advice for the existing DART team and officers who aspire to join DART?
COL Chew: I believe the DART unit will continue to improve through horizon scanning, research and learning from best practices to discover the best means to serve the public and bring SCDF to greater heights. It is what we do that makes us who we are — the elite team in SCDF. I had always uttered this to my DART team, “If you want to be an elite, you have to first think and look like an elite, then you will be able to live like an elite.”