KARACHI, July 7: While nearly half a dozen picnickers drowned in the sea last month alon, the city’s 64-kilometre-long coastal belt lacks proper lifeguard units working under one authority and the Karachi Municipal Corporation emergency response centre at Hawkesbay is being run by the fire department with meagre resources at its disposal, it emerged on Saturday.
“The sea can be cruel. It is unforgiving during monsoon months and people should avoid entering it during June and July,” says Mr Mairaj Khan, the station officer at the Emergency Response Centre, Hawkesbay, who is in charge of some 56 lifeguards and several volunteers posted at the Hawkesbay and Sandspit beaches that fall under the jurisdiction of the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC).
The whiteboard at the KMC rescue centre mentions the number of lives saved and lost in June. Though the ones saved outnumber those who could not be saved, the number ‘five’ in the ‘lives lost’ column glares back at you.
“Normal waves become huge tides during monsoon months. A strong rip current and impact of waves pull the victim deep into the sea. And if there are rocks submerged there, like you have at Paradise Point, then the impact of crashing into them kills you even before the sea pulls you down,” he explains.
The Emergency Response Centre is run by the fire brigade department. The station officer at Hawkesbay is actually a firefighter.
“Life saving happened incidentally for us when some government secretary’s little boy was bitten by a bluebottle at the beach. That was when letters were issued by the government to start a proper bay watch unit that could help beach-goers in times of emergency. That’s when the fire brigade took on this challenge,” he says with pride.
“We know we may not be very well-equipped to save lives but we are totally dedicated and sincere to our job,” he claims.
A big red fire truck stands in the centre’s compound. At one side there is a covered rescue boat kept carefully in the garage.
Asked how many vehicles they have for patrolling the beaches, the officer points towards the heavy fire engine. “We only have that.”
They do not have any 4x4 vehicles to race to a rescue operation with back-up nor do they have any jet skis to ride the waves in order to reach a drowning person.
They had five inflatable boats in 2005 but they got damaged beyond repair during the floods. In fact, they don’t even have any ambulances.
“We deploy our lifeguards at nine watchtowers for each morning and evening shift. From there the lifeguards patrol the beaches on foot,” he says. About the ambulances, he says that they have requested the Edhi Foundation to spare at least two ambulances for the weekends.
The nine checkpoints have been built at the most vulnerable points, says the officer. These happen to be Paradise Point, Kanupp beach, Neelum Point, Cape Monze, etc.
“Right now there is a ban on swimming at these places, but the authorities cannot stop the people from going there.
Therefore we have to remain extra vigilant, especially during the weekends as picnickers head for the beaches as early as 8am,” says Mr Khan.
Their other equipment comprises some first aid stuff, binoculars, rescue tubes and rescue or floatation cans. “These are expensive things. The rescue tubes that we can tie around a drowning person to pull them to the shore while keeping a safe distance costs around Rs17,000 each. The prices of floatation cans, too, are between Rs15,000 and Rs20,000.
“We have two rescue tubes and an equal number of floatation cans at our checkpoints,” he adds.
“It is unfortunate that this simple rescue equipment is not manufactured in our country,” he remarks.
The man only shrugs when asked if the department was being pennywise and pound foolish by dragging a heavy fire engine on the beaches where it can even get stuck when they can buy around three or four 4x4 trucks, a few jet skis and more rescue equipment instead.
“This is not the West where they have all kinds of equipment for saving lives. We have to risk our own lives when saving people. I wish we had Sea King or Chinook helicopters to throw buoys to the people and pull them out, but we have to make do with whatever we have,” he sighs.
At some points, the KMC has placed signboards warning people from going into the water during this time while also educating them about dangerous waves.
“The KMC is not in charge of all the Karachi beaches. Karachi’s 64km-long coastal belt starts from Keti Bundar and goes right up to Mubarak Village. KMC jurisdiction in this area is just 17 kilometres long,” says the official.
The remaining 47km is looked after by other authorities, namely the Port Qasim Authority, Landhi Fish Harbour (near Rehri Goth), Korangi Creek, Cantonment Board Clifton, Defence Housing Authority, Karachi Port Trust, Pakistan Navy, Cantonment Board Manora and Kanupp.
“Since we are better equipped and have trained lifeguards, we are often called for help during emergencies. But once there we have to standby until given orders to start our work as jurisdictions, too have to be respected,” he adds.
Recently some NGOs have also started their lifeguard service, he says.
“Our helpline number is ‘16’ but in times of emergency, people usually ring the police helpline ‘15’, who then relay it to the fire headquarters,” he says.
KMC lifeguards like the several other lifeguards deployed by the other authorities are mainly local fishermen. “They are very strong swimmers,” he says. “During the monsoon months, when fishing is banned, we get more volunteers from these fishing communities but we can’t really pay them handsomely although the regular employees range from grades six to 11 and are paid a monthly salary of around Rs18,000.”
Asked if they also undergo any training, he replies: “Well, we all take a refresher course once in two to three years which are offered to us by the Pakistan Naval Academy.”
When Dawn met some lifeguards deployed at the beaches, they had their own stories to tell. “We try so hard to stop the people from going into the water but they never listen,” says one lifeguard, Woshdil.
“I have been slapped and punched by women when I tried to stop them from going into the water. They also heaped all kinds of abuses on me,” says Sikander Ali, who has been working as a lifeguard for the past 11 years. “And then if some unfortunate incident happens, they say what was the lifeguard doing standing there?”
Most of the towers they use for watching the beach are also missing several steps. “People have stolen the planks to use them as firewood for cooking,” he explains. The one tower that had steps was without lifeguards. Instead there was a family of four having their picnic lunch up there. “They wanted us to let them eat there as they wanted to enjoy the view from up there,” says one another lifeguard at the beach.
Asked why the beaches were not closed down during this time, the lifeguards say that it is not their job to do so. “It is the job of the law-enforcement agencies,” they say. “But some beaches also charge toll or fees. Why would they want the people to stop coming?”