SINGAPORE - A Singapore Prisons Emergency Action Response (Spear) Force team in full tactical gear was activated to deal with a 'fire' at Admiralty West Prison and the ensuing mayhem, which included three inmates who disobeyed instructions.
This was the scenario that played out on Nov 13 as the Spear Force demonstrated its capabilities to The Straits Times.
Nine fully-armed officers in masks stormed out of a black van that day and after a briefing, team leader Senior Chief Warder 2 (SCW2) Zainal Haron, 53, told his men their mission: to provide security and form a tight cordon during the evacuation of 50 inmates to a safer prison block.
Less lethal force may be used if an inmate struggles or tries to escape, said the 26-year veteran.
The Spear Force, which traces its roots to the Special Action Prisons Unit formed in 1977, will mark its 40th anniversary on Dec 1.
Today's Spear Force officers are armed with modern technology and weaponry for a range of operations from quelling prison riots to evacuating inmates and escorting high-risk inmates to court.
Their formidable appearance is designed to quickly gain inmates' respect and compliance when things go wrong.
SCW2 Zainal, who declined to reveal the number of times the unit has been activated, said: "They (inmates) will struggle. Sometimes they're big, over 100kg. It would require a few (officers) to subdue an inmate, not one. We train hard but (getting) bruised is normal."
The officers' new uniform is fire-proof and they each also don a bullet and stab proof vest which is equipped with a communication set, gas mask, handcuffs, pepper spray and stun grenades.
Body protection is vital as inmates can improvise weapons out of sharpened plastics, pens and keys.
Chief Warder 1 (CW1) Jeremy, 31, one of the youngest in the team with six years of experience, counts the Remington 870 Modular Combat Shotgun as his favourite weapon.
The armaments and acquisition specialist, who declined to give his full name, said the shotgun can fire less lethal "super sock" shells up to 50m.
ST was given the opportunity to fire the shotgun at the unit's firing range, located within Singapore Prison Complex. At 10m, the shell, which discharges a small bean bag or "super sock", tore a hole in the cardboard target.
The officers' FN303P sidearm does the same with pellets, but has a shorter range of about 20m.
A gung-ho, trigger-happy recruit is not needed by the unit, said its Commanding Officer, Assistant Commissioner (AC) Ong Aik San.
AC Ong, 50, said: "We look for people who are team players. During the selection tryouts, (we look at) who's helping the other fellow."
Team work is essential when dealing with rioting inmates. The Spear Force's stack of eight officers moves in concert swiftly, each man covering a sector. Hand signals are relayed instead of verbal orders, to gain tactical advantage.
To date, no Spear Force officer has been stabbed or overpowered in any real-life operation.
Added AC Ong: "It hasn't happened yet. Should it happen, we want to make sure they (Spear Force officers) are able to overcome the odds."
Correction note: An earlier version of this story referred to the Special Action Prisons Unit as the Singapore Action Prisons Unit.