SINGAPORE - Phones ring off the hook and chatter fills the room at the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Operations Centre, as officers take calls and monitor a panel of video screens on the wall showing footage from security cameras around the island.
The centre - housed in a room barely the size of a tennis court- is the little-known nerve centre of the force and the first point of contact for reports of fire, rescue or medical incidents.
Every time someone in Singapore dials 995 - last year SCDF handled more than 290,000 phone calls, averaging 790 calls a day - an SCDF operations centre specialist answers it.
Officially opened in 2002, the centre in the basement of the SCDF headquarters in Ubi was open to the media for the first time on Thursday (21 Dec).
Despite the high volume, the 23 to 25 people who man the centre - some operations centre specialists, nurses and monitoring officers - hit strict timing targets. Calls are answered within 10 seconds and appropriate resources are deployed within 80 seconds.
And officers there said the festive periods tend to be the busiest.
SCDF chief medical officer Ng Yih Yng said with more people in the festive spirit, there are more calls related to drinking and "sometimes too much partying".
Captain Shawn Tan, 29, an SCDF rotation (Rota) commander with the Operations Centre, said sometimes the calls involve rubbish chute fires, where people who have barbecues throw hot charcoal or ashes down the chute.
The Operations Centre can take calls in the four main languages and has team members who speak a range of dialects and more unique languages like Burmese.
"Additionally our call takers are well-versed in medical knowledge so they're able to give pre-arrival instructions to members of public when they need to," said Capt Tan.
Over the years, the SCDF has also changed some of its processes and added technology to help make the centre more efficient.
Collaborations with various related government agencies allow the force to leverage on the network of CCTV cameras and receive real-time visual updates of incident sites.
The extra eyes allow the Operations Centre team to assess the situation even before emergency vehicles arrive.
On April 1 this year, SCDF shifted to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) tiered-response framework, amid tightening manpower resources and a rising number of 995 calls.
Previously, EMS responses were based on a single-tier system where SCDF responded to all emergency medical cases on a first-come, first-served basis within the standard 11 minutes.
The new framework prioritises 995 calls based on the callers' answers to a series of questions to determine the severity of patients' medical conditions, with tiers ranging from severe to minor emergencies. This allows SCDF to deploy resources matching the seriousness of each call.
Last year, the force handled close to 180,000 emergency calls, or about 500 a day. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of such calls has increased by about 5 per cent yearly.
Besides cutting down emergency response times, SCDF has also utilised the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) to better prepare paramedics. The NEHR synchronises patients' medical records from both private and public healthcare providers.
"Knowing a patient's medical history will help paramedics take additional precautions when answering medical calls," said Capt Tan.
In 2013, nurses from the Ministry of Health were seconded to the Operations Centre to enhance the quality of emergency medical advice given to callers.
Besides conducting monthly training for operations centre specialists, the nurses also guide callers through Dispatcher Assisted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (DA-CPR).
The initiative, introduced in 2012, guides callers to conduct CPR on cardiac arrest patients.
Said Senior Staff Nurse Geraldine Goh, 30, who has been stationed at the centre for four years: "While we don't experience the medical emergency face-to-face, we are in a sense the first responders. The challenge is to keep the caller calm and guide them through medical procedures that can help the patient even before paramedics arrive."