I Remember: Tackling Fires in the 1960s

Battling flames is in his blood

Retired fireman Yunnos Shariff in his Section Leader uniform from the 1960s. He had served in the fire brigade for over 40 years before retiring. The Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 was the worst fire in Singapore's history. It ravaged the area, leaving 1
The Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 was the worst fire in Singapore's history. It ravaged the area, leaving 16,000 people homeless and four dead. Mr Yunnos, who was applying to be a fireman then, rushed over to see if he could help, but was stopped as he was not trained yet. Witnessing the blaze stirred his desire to save lives.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI ST FILE PHOTO
Retired fireman Yunnos Shariff in his Section Leader uniform from the 1960s. He had served in the fire brigade for over 40 years before retiring. The Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 was the worst fire in Singapore's history. It ravaged the area, leaving 1
Retired fireman Yunnos Shariff in his Section Leader uniform from the 1960s. He had served in the fire brigade for over 40 years before retiring.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI ST FILE PHOTO

Fighting fires is in Mr Yunnos Shariff's blood. His father was a fireman. So were his two brothers.

In fact, the veteran fireman, 72, was born in the Geylang Fire Station in 1943. In those days, firemen and their families lived in fire stations.

So, it was not surprising that Mr Yunnos, the fourth of 13 children, followed in his father's footsteps.

Witnessing the massive Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 also stirred his desire to save lives.

He was applying to be a fireman then, and rushed to the area to see if he could help. But a policeman stopped him as he was not trained yet to fight fires.

"It was chaotic. Roofs were aflame and flying all about. People were running, crying and screaming," he recalled.

The worst fire in Singapore's history ravaged the area, leaving 16,000 people homeless and four dead.

Mr Yunnos started work as a fireman in 1962, and stayed on for the next 41 years.

The Singapore Fire Brigade was in the news this week in 1965, as it put up the first public display of its fire-fighting capabilities and equipment in Empress Place. The Brigade, later known as the Singapore Fire Service, and the Civil Defence Force merged in 1989 to become the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

As a rookie fireman, Mr Yunnos put out many bush fires. In the 1960s, fire engines had no water tanks. Firemen had to look for sources of water to extinguish the flames. Mr Yunnos said they often drew water from wells, ponds and rivers.

"It was very hard to find a water supply in the forests. So, we cut off tree branches and used them to beat out the bush fires," he said.

Now, there is a network of fire hydrants islandwide that firemen can tap for water. Fire engines are also equipped with a big water tank and compressed air foam system that extinguishes fires four times quicker, while using 70 per cent less water.

In the 1960s, firemen wore only their uniforms and helmets to fight fires, he said. This is a far cry from the protective suits and breathing apparatus to help firefighters breathe in smoke-filled rooms now.

Less than a year after starting work, Mr Yunnos was promoted to work in the operations room - a fire station's nerve centre.

He manned the line the public called to report fires and other emergencies, and dispatched firemen to the scene, among other duties.

On March 10, 1965, he was the duty supervisor at the Central Fire Station in Hill Street when he experienced tremors.

Shortly after, the calls started coming in, saying that the MacDonald House had partially collapsed. It was only later that he found out a bomb had gone off in the Orchard Road building, killing three people.

His father was one of the firemen sent to the scene that day, and he felt so relieved to see his father safe and sound at the end of his shift.

Mr Yunnos retired in 2003 as a second warrant officer.

The former fireman, who has one daughter and is a great-grandfather, is now a volunteer guide in the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.

He said: "I can't bear to leave this place."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Battling flames is in his blood I Remember: Tackling Fires in the 1960s'. Print Edition | Subscribe