ISFSI Member Spotlight: Ramasami Sundaresan

Featuring:

Ramasami Sundaresan FIFireE MBA SIRM

Principal Emergency Preparedness Consultant,

Athena HESS Consultants Pte Ltd, Singapore             

 

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 1. Tell us about yourself and why you decided to join the fire service

My fire service career began in early 1971 with the Port of Singapore Authority Fire Department (PSAFD) which started a direct entry scheme in the Officer grade. I was 24 when I joined as a Trainee Fire Officer (TFO), together with 10 others. This was a peculiar, one-off recruitment exercise for the PSAFB. Experienced Fire Officers know that being direct entries in the fire service at Officer grade is not entirely advantageous, nor prestigious. We not only trained with Fireman recruits but also had to excel in the various responder skills, technical knowledge, and competencies. That was tough!

Despite the above challenges, there was ample motivation for me to make that decision to join the Fire Department. Firstly, the appointment was an executive level posting, with better career advancement potential.  With daily new challenges that required thinking on your feet and split-second decisions; the nature of work was hardly mundane compared to other executive positions in the Port. There was also the tacit pressure on you to maintain your physical fitness which generally equated to a healthy lifestyle. To add to all these, there was the charisma of the then Fire Chief, Olympian hurdler and high jumper Lloyd Oscar Valberg, that favourably influenced my affinity to the Service. Chief Valberg also had such a hilarious nature that was a sure antidote to the troubles and anxieties of daily life, both work and domestic!

My Fire Service career path took a crucial turn in 1977 when I left the sheltered environment of the government service to enter the petroleum refining Industry. I joined Shell Eastern Petroleum Limited as Senior Fire Officer (Operations) after a very competitive selection process. Generally the main draw of the industry was remuneration. However, my decision for the move hinged more on Professional Development, especially in the management of oil & gas emergencies. Mr Gurmukdas Dayaram, the then Fire Chief at Shell refinery was well known for his professional stature and technical competence. It is little wonder that I hold him in reverence to this day as my guru and mentor, both in fireground operations and management.

2. Who or what has inspired you as a fire instructor

What inspired me to be an instructor had much to do with a tragic shipboard incident that occurred less than a year after I joined the Service.

The incident scenario was that of a vessel carrying a cargo of jute bales that had suffered spontaneous combustion during the course of its voyage. This resulted in a smouldering fire within the ship’s hold. After the ship entered Singapore port waters, the hold was battened down and was flooded with carbon dioxide (CO2) to smother the fire.

The Department was notified of the situation and that the plan was to berth the vessel at one of the wharves. Inspection services of PSAFD was sought to verify that the fire was extinguished before discharge of the cargo (jute bales) could begin.

On the appointed day, three TFOs, including myself, were designated under the charge of a senior fire officer to ‘inspect’ the hold of the ship. The team’s task involved donning the breathing apparatus (BA), descending some 30 ft down a rope ladder, look for tell-tale signs of residual fire, if any; ascend the rope ladder to open deck, doff the BA and provide situation report.

Only upon hindsight, were the inherent risks of the operation recognised. The team was  going to be challenged by high levels of an asphyxiant, carbon dioxide at the lower levels; and carbon monoxide (CO), a gas with systemic toxicity and an IDLH of 1200 ppm, at the upper levels of the hold. Regrettably, as with the then unfamiliarity with many industrial risks, these hazards were not fully appreciated at that time and hence no appropriate safeguards or contingencies were put in place.

Also not recognised then was the physically strenuous nature of descending and ascending the rope ladder with the superimposed weight of the BA.

About 15 minutes into the ‘inspection’, one of my colleagues developed breathing difficulties which was later concluded to be due to respiratory protective equipment (RPE) malfunction. It was therefore decided that he withdrew from the ‘inspection’. Which meant that, he had now to strenuously climb up the rope-ladder to reach the open deck.

Unfortunately, he was not able to fully complete the climb and abandoned the effort at an intermediate deck level and took off his BA mask. He soon became unconscious and had to be rescued, and was rushed to hospital.

Tragically, however, he succumbed to CO poisoning at the hospital in a matter of 2 hours.

Although this incident was some 50 years ago, I vividly remember the sense of utter frustration, despair and disappointment over this agonising loss of a precious life.  If it can be any consolation at all, I was able to channel the negative emotions to play a significant role in remedying that dire state of affairs confronting the Department, the Safety of its personnel, and its operational efficacy.

As mature and experienced professionals, you will readily recognise the long list of root causes that led to the tragedy. I don’t have to enumerate the myriad remedial measures that needed to be undertaken with urgency. You’d also agree with me that much of corrective actions were TRAINING centred. It is little wonder that Training was my primary role through my remaining years at PSAFD, and it culminated in the establishment of the PSA Fire Training School.

Training has remained in my blood even as I moved on to expanded Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) portfolios in the Oil & Gas industry, and as I manage the HSE consultancy that I presently lead.

3. What are some things you are working on in your organization and how can others learn from them:

The following are among the key items in which I am currently investing my time and effort. Much of the ongoing work is in the area of continual improvement, especially in the light of emerging technologies.

A.     Industrial Pre-Incident Planning (iPIP)

 

Discussed in detail in the next section

 

B.      Industrial Emergency Preparedness Consultancy & Training

Despite the huge strides that Industries have made in technological advancements since the first industrial revolution more than 250 years ago, their vulnerability to unanticipated incidents continues unabated to this day. Unfortunately, organizations are often unprepared to handle such incidents, thus turning them into emergencies, and occasionally allowing them to escalate to catastrophic proportions.

Ironically though, every incident inherently provides a window of opportunity for its safe containment through timely mitigation by pre-engineered systems, adequate response resources, and effective incident management strategies.

Let’s take one of the training programs in this category, Managing Major Emergencies (MME) Course. it is designed precisely with the above in mind.

•        Its primary objective is that of strengthening incident management and leadership competencies of middle and senior management personnel in industrial organizations. Other benefits and objectives of the Course are:

•        Empowering industrial organizations to build in-house capabilities to manage and mitigate potential emergencies arising in their operations.

•        Raising the awareness of fire and explosion risks associated with the operations undertaken by the company/facility.

•        Achieving clarity of roles and responsibilities, consistency in strategy and tactics, and uniformity is communications and protocols.

One of the special features of this course is the innovative use of miniature scale models of operational and firefighting equipment. The models lend realism to table-top exercises that are extremely effective in discussing emergency scenarios, and strategies and tactics.

 

C.      Scenario Video Simulation

Scenario video simulation (SVS) is a multimedia tool conceived by us to complement iPIP

in the private/industrial sector

Considering the fact that industrial operations are leanly manned, it is not an easy proposition for iPIP based fire drills to be handled by line management. Furthermore, it is unreasonable to expect industrial personnel to be fully equipped with professional fire service skills and knowledge. Consequently, the standard of training and competence in emergency response tends to suffer. The seriousness of this deficiency is often not recognised until an emergency strikes. Whereupon the losses are generally large.

Having analysed the situation, we identified the root cause to be resource constraint, particularly on the shift lead who generally conducts the drill. We therefore devised this concept to do away with the pre-drill training. Instead, video recordings of individual drill scenarios and mitigation operations are prepared in strict conformity with the iPIP. This scope is outsourced to a third-party service provider.

The recordings are uploaded on the company’s training portal for prior viewing by all drill participants, who are usually members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT).

Immediately prior to the drill, the video is played, and salient points are discussed. Upon completion of the drill, a debrief is conducted.

With the burden of conducting pre-drill training being removed, drills proceed smoothly, without quality being compromised. This concept facilitates management review and oversight. Additionally, this model has the advantages of being able to assure training/drill standards, and adherence to drill schedule.

D.     Consequence Modelling

Industrial responders are generally at the scene within minutes of the incident onset. Given this, it is vital that thermal radiation and vapour dispersal intensities are at least qualitatively determined as part of pre-Incident planning. This would serve as a reasonable guide for safe approach route and deployment of fire vehicles. This is achieved through a fit for purpose Consequence Modelling (CM) process. Unlike the modelling for Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) which addresses predetermined static targets, modelling for incident response is dynamic in nature. In the case of the latter, responders do assess and re-assess site conditions. Thus, they are able to modify their approach route and vehicle deployment to suit prevailing site conditions, especially wind direction.

Beyond facilitating initial safe approach and deployment, CM has the capability to aid the predictability of fire escalation potentials and early execution of mitigation measures.

Following are the event categories within identified scenarios that are considered for consequence modelling:

A.     Thermal Radiation

a.      Jet fire

b.      Spill Fire

c.       Pool Fire (including Tanks)

d.      Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion (BLEVE)

 

B.     Vapour Dispersion

a.      Flammable Gas Release

b.      Toxic Release

4. Tell us about a project or training accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career:

The most significant of my accomplishments over the 50 plus year career is undoubtedly the methodology and process of Industrial Pre-Incident Planning (iPIP)®.

I pioneered this concept and its ancillary tools during my tenure as Senior Technical Adviser with a South Korean oil & gas conglomerate. Today, iPIP is a registered trademark and proprietary product of the consultancy firm that I own.

The term Pre-Incident Planning refers to a process of proactively identifying potential hazardous events or scenarios and documenting relevant data, strategies, and tactics to safely mitigate those incidents. The product of such a process is the Pre-Incident Plan (PIP).

Background

Pre-Incident Plan is the successor to ‘Pre-Fire Plan’ that came into existence perhaps in the 1970s. Closer to the turn of the century, the precept that “All incidents are predictable and preventable” gained global traction across the industrial world. This gave rise to the notion that pre-planning could indeed be applied to all conceivable undesirable occurrences as part of the Risk Management framework of industrial operations. Progressive organisations soon extended the pre-planning process to industrial safety, security and quality scenarios.

Around the same timeframe, similar rationale started evolving in the United States arising from the joint initiatives of the public fire department and the Insurance industry. A distinct impetus to this development was the major fire loss in 1987 involving a sprinklered warehouse in the state of Ohio.

Although recommended practices and guidelines soon evolved for Pre-Incident Planning in the public fire services dominion, it was not until some years later that a full-blown PIP Standard emerged in the form of NFPA 1620: Standard for Pre-Incident Planning.

Aside from providing structured guidance to responding personnel, a major benefit of the Standard is the emphasis it has brought about on Emergency Responder Health & Safety and the introduction of Risk Management principles and practices to the US public fire services. These two important elements in the Safety of responders were generally overshadowed by misplaced importance attached to speed over caution. This mindset among responders naturally renders them prone to seemingly impetuous actions. 

The concept of Pre-Incident Planning is largely in its nascent stages in most other parts of the world.

Purpose & Benefits

The purpose and benefits of industrial Pre-Incident Planning are manifold and more important of them are:

1.      Predetermined and well-rehearsed response to incidents in conformity with relevant Company policies and procedures with particular emphasis on Safety.

2.      Standardisation of Emergency Response terminology & communications

3.      Fire Protection adequacy verification through site evaluation as part of iPIP development process. Where gap is identified, interim measures are instituted.

4.      Assurance of ready availability of logistical requirements (‘Man, Machine & Material’) including through Mutual Aid arrangements

5.      Enhancement of structure, realism and consistency in periodic Fire Drills and exercises. Facilitates the use of e-learning via company intranet to self-prepare in readiness for Drill/Exercise.

6.      Objective assessment and de-brief of Fire Drills and Exercises on basis of adherence to the PIP.

7.      Structured process of hand-over to state/municipality response agencies (e.g. Civil Defence) where required

8.      Enhanced visualisation of potential scenarios with graphical representation during training and drills for ERT and Crisis Management Team (CMT) members.

9.      Clear delineation of roles and responsibilities of ERT members.

10.  The PIP serves as common reference and road-map for the On-Scene Commander (OSC), Incident Command Team (ICT), Crisis Management Team (CMT), thus enhancing the vital aspects of Emergency Communications and Co-ordination.

 

5. What do you hope to accomplish as a fire service instructor
a. When you are gone, what do you want people to remember you by:

Foremost among the aspirations I have for my legacy as a Fire Protection training professional is a handbook on industrial incident response planning and training. My focus on industrial incident response stems from my intimate knowledge of the scarcity of institutional support for frontline responders. Functioning within the business world, their empowerment needs are severely hampered by competing commercial interests.

6. What is the biggest change you have noticed in the fire service since you started:

The most significant change that I have seen over the years is:

Technological advancement in both Fire Protection Hardware and Software, including

o   Robotics

o   Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Drones

o   Consequence Modelling for Thermal Radiation & Vapour Dispersion profiling

Given my 50 plus year emergency response and HSE career, some of the other major changes I have seen are:

·         Proliferation of Fire Protection related Research & Development

·         Increased Safety, Health, and Wellness Awareness

·         Adoption of Risk Management Principles

 

7. What is something that most people don’t know about you:

That I continue to strive in my quest to empower Emergency Responders by

·         Keeping them abreast of best practices in the Profession,

·         Disseminating emerging trends in the Fire Protection Industry to aid resolution of their specific challenges.

·         stimulating innovative emergency response methodologies, and strategies & tactics,

·         Delivering related training to achieve foregoing objectives .

 

8. If you could choose your title (other than the generic Training Officer or Firefighter) that uniquely describes you in your position, what would it be and why

I would like my ideal title to include the elements of guidance, trust, friendship, emotional support and role modelling. These are indeed the needs of a ‘Trainee’, whether due his or her own reckoning or implied by the sponsoring authority.

The term that fits the above criteria is “Mentor”. One definition of ‘mentor’ is as follows:

“A mentor is a person or friend who guides a less experienced person by building trust and modelling positive behaviours. An effective mentor understands that his or her role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and tuned into the needs of the mentee.”

9. And finally, what advice do you have to give another instructor or to somebody who is just starting out as an instructor

Be fully cognisant of the crucial and sacrosanct role and responsibilities you have in assuring the following:

·         Personal Safety of Trainees and Instructors

·         Professionalism of departmental personnel and reputation of the Department.

·         Quality of service and Level of Protection the Department ultimately delivers to the Community

 

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