Major Foo Yiing Kai remembers digging through the rubble of a school to recover the bodies of children after an earthquake hit Sichuan province in China in 2008.
"The first thing we saw when we arrived was school bags lined up, but there were no kids around. What we could smell was the stench of death," the 39-year-old emergency responder told reporters at the Asian Conference of Criminal and Operations Psychology yesterday.
Major Foo, a platoon commander with the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), was one of 55 officers mobilised to help with rescue efforts in Sichuan after the quake left more than 80,000 dead.
He said the gruesome sight affected several officers in the contingent, some of whom were parents. They made phone calls to their families in Singapore to help them deal with the stress.
And trained paracounsellors like Major Foo played a key role in supporting fellow officers through the challenging time.
The SCDF introduced its paracounsellor scheme in 1999 to provide officers with psychological assistance and emotional care. It currently has 143 officers volunteering as paracounsellors, who are trained in basic counselling, crisis intervention and peer support skills.
The work of paracounsellors is invaluable in helping officers handle the stress of dealing with traumatic situations and identifying those who may have difficulty coping, said Major Foo, who has been a paracounsellor since 2003. "Rescuers are also human," he said.