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Earthquake SAR operation in Mount Kinabalu, Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and forest fires are among the tragedies that often threaten human lives, destroy property, paralyzes society, the economy and community daily activities. In Malaysia, the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia (FRDM) is an agency that is a major responder for national rescue emergencies and was established under the Malaysian Fire Services Act 1988 (Act 341).

FRDM is a federal government agency with high capabilities and expertise, having cutting-edge rescue and fire-fighting equipment along with special forces such as the Emergency Medical Response Service (EMRS), Special Tactical Operation Team Malaysia (STORM) and Hazardous Material(HAZMAT) Teams. These units are specially trained in operations to address catastrophic or large-scale incidents, high-risk and complex incidents including natural disaster such as the recent Mount Kinabalu Earthquake in Ranau, Sabah. FDRM also prioritizes response times and compliance with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) during operations. A high-quality service delivery to customers is the core business of the organization in line with the Vision of the Department; ‘Being A High-Performance Organization in Fire and Rescue ‘.

Incident background

Earthquakes are a frequent natural disaster in areas where continental plates experience slippage or vibration. This is due to the sudden release of energy forming seismic waves. Normal earthquakes are caused by the Earth’s crust movement either horizontally or vertically. The earthquake in Ranau is associated with the existence of active faults. These faults are driven by compressive pressures from the three main interactions of the Philippine-Pacific Plate, Eurasian Plate and Australian Plate. Sabah is located in the southeast of the Eurasian plate. According to Prof. Dr. Felix Tongkul (University Malaysia Sabah June 10, 2016), the Philippines-Pacific Plate moves around 10cm a year westward and collides with the Eurasian Plate. Whereas in the southern part of the Australian Plate is moving north at a rate of 7 cm a year which build up long distance compressive energy. From the perspective of fire and rescue, earthquake disaster management can be divided into four phases of the disaster management system namely Preparedness, Response, Recovery, and Mitigation.

In the ‘Preparedness’ phase, Sabah Fire and Rescue Department has taken anticipative and proactive measures to manage the incident by organizing ‘‘Ex-Storm Kinabalu’ Disaster Management Training intensively in Mount Kinabalu, Ranau, Sabah on 16 December 2014. The aim of this training, which involves all agencies and volunteer bodies, is to instill rescue team preparedness to address earthquake catastrophes as well as strengthening collaboration and teamwork among departments, rescue agencies and supporting agencies which could be involved.

Beautiful view of Mount Kinabalu after the earthquake in Desa Dairy Farm in Mesilau, Little New Zealand of Sabah.

Earthquake chronology

The majestic view of the Mount Kinabalu in Kundasang, which is about 24 km from Ranau Sabah, was spoilt by an earthquake on June 05, 2015, at 7.15am with a magnitude 6.0 on the richter scale. The quake has resulted in numerous landslides at the top of the mountain and over mountaineering routes to Mount Kinabalu. This area includes the large rock formations of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Peak and the famous ‘Donkeys Ears’ at the summit of the mount. The rock slide from the collapse of these huge stone peaks caused destruction and casualties among climbers and mountain guides. Based on the information from the State FRDM Operations Center on the day of the earthquake, 187 climbers, 46 mountain guides, 11 Mountain Torq employees, 31 Sutera Sanctuary Lodges staffs, and 2 Sabah Parks Officers were trapped at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. FRDM, as the major rescue agency, mobilized the first rescue team of 5 officers to the scene to initiate the search and rescue operation.

Operation of transporting earthquake victims in Paka-Paka.

Sar operations

On 5 June 2015, at 0737 am, the Sabah Fire and Rescue Department Operations Center (PGO) received distress calls through the Malaysian Emergency Response Services (MERS) 999 from the public and Sabah Parks Officers. The callers stated that some climbers were stranded on the peak of Mount Kinabalu, as the hiking trails have been cut off due to cracks and rockslides. When the earthquake struck, the rockslides struck a rope route known as ‘Walk the Torq’. Then fell on a group of 12 Singaporean students on the 200 foot high “Monkey Bridge”. At the same time, some climbers who were on the route 6 km to 7 km route were also affected by rock collapse, resulting in severe injuries and deaths at the scene. The stranded climbers along with the mountains guides had to begin their journey down the climbing route to get help from rescue teams.

At 7.40 am the Rescue Team from the Ranau Fire and Rescue Station was deployed and was assisted by the Sabah Parks rangers which arrived at the site in about 39 minutes and commencement search and rescue operations.

In this ‘Response’ phase, the Fire and Rescue Department implemented search and rescue operations using the FRDM Incident Command System (ICS), adapted to achieve the goals and objectives of the operating action plan. The ICS organizational structure was formed in the Fire Command Post (FCP) that had been created to coordinate action and determine the search and rescue movement strategy for affected victims. The ICS Organization Structure was headed by a Senior Police Officers as ‘Incident Commander’ and assisted by Senior Fire and Rescue Officer as Deputy Incident Commander, supported by Command Staffs in Planning, Finance, Logistics, and Operations Section. The initial search and rescue operation was immediately implemented by the mountain guides whilst Fire and Rescue Department and Sabah Parks Rangers are to oversee the entire area including the ‘size-up’ and to identify the safe routes for climbing. Upon receipt of operational reconnaissance, the first rescue team consisting of 18 members started climbing the mountain to enter the ‘red zone’ area where the climbers were stranded or injured.

The rescue team evacuated the victims from the rock debris to the main route at KM 6.0.

On the first day, as soon as the mass evacuation was complete, the search and rescue operations for earthquake victims continued to intensify at the scene. At 11.30am disaster management and coordination of the search and rescue operations are regulated and monitored by the State Disaster Management Committee, chaired by Sabah State Secretary DSP Sukarti Wakiman. At the same time, the Fire Command Post was set up in the Kinabalu Park area headed by Sabah State Fire and Rescue Department as Deputy Incident Commander to coordinate and mobilize rescue teams, comprising various agencies such as the Fire Department Malaysia Rescue, Police, SMART Team, Malaysian Armed Forces, Department of Civil Defense, Ranger of Sabah Parks, Mountain Guides Society and Mountain Torq Coach. A total number of 497 members of the SAR teams and support agencies were involved in the earthquake SAR operation.

Under the Operations Section, a Fire Front Command Post (FFCP) was established at Timpohon Gate (PKH1), Kundasang – Helipad (PKH2) and Laban Rata (PKH3) to implement Incident Action Plans (IAP) Rescue steps. The main objective of the operation is to implement “Mass Evacuation” by evacuating the victims (climbers) from the location to a safe place. Next is to perform the ‘Search and Rescue’ (SAR) and transfer victims to a safe location.

In the ‘Recovery’ phase, the rescue teams identified alternative trails in the affected area and safe routes which were provided with ‘Guide Line’ or ‘safety rope’ to facilitate rescuers’ movement in SAR operations. At the third stage, SAR movements at the scene locates safe paths with Locate-Access-Stable-Transport (LAST) method, ‘SAR Pattern’ search techniques and subsequent ‘Body Recovery’ operations. There were challenges faced by the rescue teams whereby it is extremely difficult to access at the site through the 7km point of the ‘Timpohon Trail’ and ‘Mesilau Trail’. At level four of the operation strategy, mobilization of resources such as ambulance were used to transport victims to nearest the government hospitals. However, the use of helicopters to transport victims could not be fully implemented due to dangerous helicopter and weather factors in the area of Mount Kinabalu.

By the third day, all the 18 casualties of the earthquake were found by rescue teams. The total number of victims rescued during the earthquake operation was 277, of which 237 were safe, 22 were injured and 18 died. The search and rescue operations in the Mountain Kinabalu earthquake took 5 days and finally ended completely on 10 June 2015 at 12 noon.

In the ‘Mitigation’ phase, the Fire and Rescue Department Malaysia as the primary rescue agency has established a special rescue team, ‘Mountain Search and Rescue’ (MOSAR) Team to improve response time and rescue team preparedness in the event of any emergencies in the mountain. In addition, the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia has also held awareness and preparedness campaigns on an earthquake to all levels of all state government agencies and federal agencies in Sabah.

Earthquake operation: lesson learned

Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia is constantly upgrading its human resources, logistics, professionalism, member skills and response time to provide fire and rescue services to the whole community. Hence, this search and rescue operation has provided some lessons in the services related to FRDM.

1. SOP earthquake disaster management

The success of the search and rescue operations in the Mount Kinabalu earthquake tragedy is largely dependent on the effectiveness of the ‘Ex-Storm Kinabalu’ – Disaster Management Training. Hence, there is a need to establish a clear and systematic Earthquake Operational Action Plan (OAP) to address earthquakes more efficiently and effectively in the future.

2. Public awareness campaign

The public knowledge and awareness of earthquakes and its impact after an incident are crucial to reducing risk of injuries and loss of life due to earthquakes. Awareness campaigns, knowledge sessions and community preparedness on earthquake catastrophe continues to be maintained by the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia. The community itself needs to establish an earthquake preparedness program in order to deal with earthquakes in the future more easily and effectively.

3. Multiple agency disaster management exercise

Coordination of operations during the earthquake disaster among various agencies should be further enhanced through disaster management training involving all rescue agencies and support agencies. This cooperation could help each agency to review, test and improve its preparedness in terms of departmental SOPs, logistic, preparedness, staff skills, communication and staff expertise during an earthquake disaster.

4. Dedication and commitment of rescue team members

In this search and rescue operation, each member should perform their duties, responsibilities and the respective roles required, even without further instructions from the superior officer. The spirit, the commitment of members and the dedication of high-ranking team members will build an emerging emergency team that acts in an orderly manner; ‘one unit’ led by the ‘lead agency’ Fire and Rescue team in the search and rescue operation for the victims – as portrayed in the incident of Mount Kinabalu earthquake.

The STORM and SMART Team moved a mountain guide victim to Helipad in Paka-Paka.


The Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department as a national rescue agency has played an important role supporting agencies in search and rescue operation in the Mount Kinabalu, Ranau, Sabah earthquake. The preparedness, skills high teamwork, attentive attitude, professional attitudes and commitment of rescue team members are essential to ensure that every survivor is saved irrespective of the status, race, and nationality of the victim. The success of the Fire and Rescue team along with other agencies involved in this operation enhanced the image of the department and the community’s confidence in the government’s commitment to protecting the interests of society as a whole, in line with the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department’s Vision of Being a High-Performance Fire and Rescue Organization, to greater heights.

For more information, email koupirie67@gmail.com

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J. Jupiri Bin Apou, Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia, Sabah State.

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