Could the death of the 5 Bulacan rescuers been avoided? 2
Rescue operation at Provident Subdivision in Marikina City during typhoon Ulysses in 2020. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Could the death of the 5 Bulacan rescuers been avoided? This rescue expert thinks so

One problem in rescue operations is there’s just not enough people. “(Rescuers) are trained to become MacGyvers, who do two to three jobs.”
RHIA GRANA | Sep 28 2022

Troy Justin Agustin, George Agustin, Marby Bartolome, Jerson Resurreccion, and Narciso Calayag are considered veterans in disaster response and rescue. These five, who perished during a rescue mission in Bulacan at the height of recent Typhoon Karding were—according to emergency management expert Dr. Ted Esguerra—“batak” when it came to water rescue operations, Bulacan being an area beset by a lot of flooding. 

Troy was trained in handling medical emergencies, firefighting, vehicular extrication, collapsed structure for earthquake, water rescue, and rope rescue. Three of the five responders were actually already rescue mission trainers themselves.

A residential area in Barangay Poblacion, San Miguel, Bulacan submerged in floodwaters brought by Super Typhoon Karding. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
A residential area in Barangay Poblacion, San Miguel, Bulacan submerged in floodwaters brought by Super Typhoon Karding. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

But clearly, there are lessons to be learned following the Bulacan mishap, if you ask Esguerra. The tragedy could have been avoided if the men had more advanced and waterproof communication implements, he says. But he also acknowledges the highly difficult challenge of surviving the current when there’s heavy debris involved, or when one gets entangled in wires.

Esguerra has been involved in numerous trainings of the Bulacan Rescue team. In fact, he is mentor to some of the rescuers found dead in Bulacan early Monday. He is a flight surgeon and was trained in different specialties, which include Urban and Wilderness Rescue, Aviation Medicine, Tactical Medicine, Disaster Medicine, Aquatic/Dive Medicine and High Altitude Medicine, among many others. 

Last Sunday, Troy Justin and company were on their way to rescue residents of San Miguel, Bulacan trapped in their houses due to the flash flood. Following usual protocols, the group would update the base from time to time, and were still able to send communication at 1 AM. An hour later, they were no longer responding. 

Based on witnesses’ stories, the rescuers were last seen in a gasoline station. The guys were fine until the wall of the station collapsed and their boat was sucked by a strong current. “Na-detach sila sa second team and lost communication,” says Esguerra. “Dapat may real-time na video feed. Naka-live. Nakakabit sa helmet nila kung anong nangyayari. Nakikita ng command center.”

There could have been a point guy, too, who would serve as an overwatch while the other team members were deployed. “Itong lima, puro matitikas lahat gusto sumangga sa baha. Walang tao on higher ground who served as their overwatch. Kasi kulang sa manpower,” the doctor offers. 

Members of the Bulacan Rescue team
Members of the Bulacan Rescue team. Photo courtesy of Bulacan PDRRMO

It’s no mean feat putting one’s life on the line in order to save others in times of calamity, accidents and emergencies. This is why not everyone is cut out to become a rescuer. It requires the kind of rigorous training and physical and mental readiness that only those truly determined and dedicated are able to take on.

It’s a very physical job, thus the obvious requirement to be physiologically fit. There are different types of rescue operation, and they’re mainly categorized into four: fire, technical, medical, and specialized (those involving hazardous materials). Technical rescue covers the most sub-specialties, which include rope rescue, high angle rescue, water operations, water search and rescue, collapsed structure, helicopter rescue, victim extrication, confined space entry and rescue, urban search and rescue, wilderness search and rescue, silo rescue, and cave rescue.

Doing a rescue operation during typhoons falls under water rescue operations. In the basic training, aspiring rescuers learn skills such as troubleshooting outboard motors and carrying rubber boats. They also undergo training on water safety, swimming and rigging or ropework. “Kasi ang tubig at lubid hindi magkaibigan yan. Kapag hindi ka marunong [gumamit ng lubid], papatayin ka niyan,” says Esguerra. 

Rope rescue is an important skill in technical rescue. “Pag magaling ka sa rope, medyo kuha mo na yung ibang technical rescue skills,” adds the doctor, also the founder of Wilderness Search and Rescue Philippines.

Water training includes a course on floodwater rescue operations. Trainees are taught how to handle different water currents—hydraulics, pumps, waves, stream, whirlpool. “Masalimuot na training yan kasi highly physical, puro tubig,” says Esguerra. His trainings are usually held in the waters of Laguna, Tarlac, Davao, Cagayan province, and Cagayan de Oro.

Dr. Ted Esguerra during a rescue mission in Marikina
Dr. Ted Esguerra (right) in a rescue mission in Marikina. Photo courtesy of Dr. Esguerra

Normally, rescuers undergo Water Search and Rescue (WASAR) training but this is not enough, says Esguerra. It is important for those responding during floods to be trained in swift water, a kind of rescue involving fast-moving water conditions. One also has to take lessons on Environmental Emergency Management where one learns how to perform CPR for victims of drowning and handle hypothermia (body temperature drops).

Floodwater rescue operators should have training on what he calls the S3–security, safety, and survival. “Kasama dito yung paano ka mag-survive sa tubig, mag-rescue swimming, paano ka mag-drift kung naanod ka.”

In the Philippines, rescuers usually go through annual water trainings. But ideally, this should be done thrice a year, says Esguerra. “Ang nangyayari kasi sa Pilipinas, kasi hindi tayo ganoon kayaman na bansa, nagiging smorgasbord ang training ng mga rescuers. They are trained to become MacGyvers, who do two to three jobs,” he says.

Ideally, a rescuer should have a specialty. “Parang sundalo, na kung sniper ka, sniper ka. Kung bomb disposal ka, dun ka. Sa atin, sa rescue operations, hindi ka maka-specialize kasi kulang sa tao. We cannot pay a lot of people,” he says.

Following the death of the five Bulacan rescuers, there’s clearly a need to train more rescuers and provide them with essential support. “Mahirap maka-train ng all-terrain, all-weather rescuers,” Esguerra says. “Eighty percent ng tine-train ko, ibang bansa ang nakikinabang. We have to put more value to good training. Suportahan natin sila nang hindi tayo nauubusan ng tao.”