Central Fire Station in Hill Street: Of blood and bandage - a living legacy

From places of worship to educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the fourth in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

It is five minutes to eight in the morning, and the courtyard at the Central Fire Station in Hill Street bustles with activity.

Firemen weary from a long night's work roll up fire hoses after the morning drills, while others mill around the yard, exchanging banter and small talk.

At eight sharp, the yard falls silent as the men form neat lines, awaiting the booming echoes of "sedia" (Malay for "attention") and senang diri ("at ease") that resound in the yard.

AN ICONIC ROLE

The station, and this gallery, help us to remember that before the Central Fire Station was built, there was no organisation that could fight fires efficiently... Because of this fire station, people had a tower watching over them as they slept at night. And today, it still watches over us, its iconic role still remains.

MR SUBANDI SOMO, the gallery manager

In solemn, ceremonial fashion, the firemen welcome their colleagues on the morning shift to assume their positions and relieve them of their duties - as men before them have done, unfailingly and tirelessly, for the past 107 years.

The Central Fire Station is Singapore's oldest existing fire station, an austere building that once stood sentinel over the island's central district. At the time it was built, its watchtower was the tallest structure in Singapore, towering over the surrounding buildings in Hill Street and Beach Road.

Before the age of skyscrapers and city lights, a fireman standing at the top of the tower could cast his eye all the way to Clarke Quay. From a vantage point of 33.5m above ground, he could see where telltale pillars of smoke would sometimes rise from the fire-prone godowns - signalling yet another incident.

At the first sign of smoke, sirens and announcements would blare throughout the fire station. The men would spring into action - getting into their protective gear, sliding down poles and running to the fire trucks, all within one minute.

The fire station's watchtower has since been dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it. And the Singapore Civil Defence Force has now improved ways of detecting fires which no longer rely on one man's tired eyes.

The Central Fire Station was the idea of professional firefighter Montague W. Pett, who arrived from England to be the superintendent of the Singapore Fire Brigade in 1905.He made it his personal mission to create a modern firefighting force in Singapore. Construction of the fire station began in 1908, and it became operational in 1909.

The station's rusticated facade and its "blood-and-bandage" brickwork was designed by architect William Ferguson. The "blood" refers to the exposed red bricks, while the "bandage" points to the plaster layovers that have been painted white.

The "blood-and-bandage" architectural style coincidentally underscores the firefighter's mission to protect the citizens of Singapore.

Modernisation during the country's early years was fraught with industrial hazards. Rickety houses made of wood and attap built in close proximity also posed a serious fire hazard, and fire outbreaks were commonplace. The construction of the fire station - and a functioningservice - was a welcome relief.

For close to 30 years, the station protected the city from a good many disasters.

Under Captain Pett's leadership, early volunteer firefighting squads of poorly trained men transformed into a modern fire brigade. The men ate, worked and slept in the complex, and over the years many firemen's families came to call the red-brick building home.

Mr Yunnos Shariff, 74, is one of those men. He started work as a fireman in 1962, and continued to serve for the next 41 years. He worked in the operations room - the nerve centre of the Central Fire Station.

During his time at the station, he witnessed the chaos following the 1965 MacDonald House bombing.

"I was in the control room when I felt the floor shake. My father and brothers - they were all firemen. My father was one of the men who got on the fire engine to MacDonald House," Mr Yunnos recalled.

"As a son, I worried. But as a fireman, we knew we had our duties, we had to do our job."

Mr Yunnos fondly recalled the strict discipline instilled in the men - and the invisible line drawn in the courtyard which children of the firemen dared not cross while the station was operational in the day.

"There was control and discipline, and every day was exciting," he said.

The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1998.

A two-year restoration project, which cost about $5 million and involved recovering the dilapidated monument blocks and adding a new dormitory, was completed in December 2000, according to Ms Linda Pang, an architect at CPG Consultants which was tasked with the station's conservation.

"The station is an enduring architectural gem, and a depiction of a bygone time in Singapore's history," Ms Pang said.

"With extensive research to obtain archival drawings, pictorial records, as well as on-site investigations to ascertain the original design and as-built condition of the buldings... the monument was restored to its original form and appearance," she added.

The station is also equipped with modern amenities for it to continue as a working fire station.

It is also home to an award-winning gallery. The Civil Defence Heritage Gallery, which opened to the public in 2001, plays host to tourists and school children from Tuesday to Sunday. It is chock-full of memorabilia donated by Mr Yunnos and other citizens, including three replicas of old fire engines.

According to gallery managerSubandi Somo, the gallery showcases the station's history and its integral role in Singapore's civil defence.Using technology, the gallery is able to display old videos and highlight historic events such as the Bukit Ho Swee and Robinsons fires.

"The station and this gallery help us to remember that before the Central Fire Station was built, there was no organisation that could fight fires efficiently," said Mr Subandi.

"Because of this fire station, people had a tower watching over them as they slept at night. And today, it still watches over us. Its iconic role still remains."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Of blood and bandage - a living legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe