Marine firefighters stand ready for any emergency at sea

A member of the SCDF Marine Command demonstrates the confidence jump on board the Orca, a ship training simulator at the Home Team Tactical Centre. Marine firefighters must be comfortable jumping from heights in case they have to abandon ship during
A member of the SCDF Marine Command demonstrates the confidence jump on board the Orca, a ship training simulator at the Home Team Tactical Centre. Marine firefighters must be comfortable jumping from heights in case they have to abandon ship during operations.
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit (above) and a light decontamination suit during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit (above) and a light decontamination suit during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing about 21kg.
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit (above) and a light decontamination suit during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit (above) and a light decontamination suit during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing about 21kg.
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit and a light decontamination suit (above) during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing
Straits Times reporter Cheryl Tee puts on a chemical agent suit and a light decontamination suit (above) during her visit to the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing about 21kg.
SCDF Marine Command personnel simulate putting out an engine block fire on board the Orca. Such training "gives our firefighters a very realistic environment to practise in", said West Coast Marine Fire Station commander Neo Jia Qi.
SCDF Marine Command personnel simulate putting out an engine block fire on board the Orca. Such training "gives our firefighters a very realistic environment to practise in", said West Coast Marine Fire Station commander Neo Jia Qi.
ST reporter Cheryl Tee (second from left) helps to "decontaminate a casualty" during a drill on board the Orca. The SCDF Marine Command is responsible for marine fire and rescue incidents and containment of chemical agents.
ST reporter Cheryl Tee (second from left) helps to "decontaminate a casualty" during a drill on board the Orca. The SCDF Marine Command is responsible for marine fire and rescue incidents and containment of chemical agents.

Hopefuls are put through rigorous land and marine training in order to clinch a spot on the elite squad

In the event of a ship fire, marine firefighters must suit up in gear weighing 9kg in less than a minute, scale a 5m-to 9m-long pilot ladder to breach the vessel, and pack on the 12kg breathing apparatus they have hauled on board.

Hopefuls are put through three years of land firefighting training and a five-week marine firefighting specialist course, and must pass a certification test before landing a spot in the elite squad.

In a 7½-hour tour earlier this month, The Straits Times joined marine firefighters on exercises which are part of the actual certification test.

They are held at Orca, the Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) ship firefighting training facility at the Home Team Tactical Centre (HTTC) in Mandai Quarry Road.

The SCDF Marine Command is responsible for marine fire and rescue incidents and containment of chemical agents. The unit, which has divisions in West Coast and Pulau Brani, has about 200 firefighters and support staff in total.

Last year, it responded to 10 marine fire and rescue incidents, as it did in 2016 - though in 2014 there was just one.

With four decks and 15 fire points, Orca replicates a ship's environment at sea, allowing firefighters to train in different fire scenarios.

Armed with 21kg of equipment, these marine firefighters worked together to put out an overhead fire on board Orca, the Singapore Civil Defence Force's ship training simulator. This was one of five training exercises during which the firefighters demo
Armed with 21kg of equipment, these marine firefighters worked together to put out an overhead fire on board Orca, the Singapore Civil Defence Force's ship training simulator. This was one of five training exercises during which the firefighters demonstrated their skills at the Home Team Tactical Centre earlier this month. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Officers can monitor drills from the control room using thermal image cameras and add sound effects for added realism.

Besides the SCDF, about 400 trainees from the Republic of Singapore Navy, Police Coast Guard and Singapore Maritime Academy have attended courses at Orca.

During training and operations, marine firefighters wear equipment weighing around 21kg.

And no exception was made for journalists taking part in a corridor flashover exercise, in which we had to put out an overhead fire in a dark, narrow aisle.

I was earmarked to head the line in front of three other firefighters.

Armed with a fire hose, I had to repeatedly jet out two quick spurts of water to keep the flames at bay.

Switching between crawling and crouching positions was excruciating, especially with a fire jacket, leggings, helmet, boots and an oxygen tank weighing me down.

But that did not pose a problem for the firefighters, who moved as a well-oiled machine amid the flurry of commands.

They continued to exhibit their teamwork in a second fire scenario - rescuing a casualty from a flooded, smoke-logged engine room.

This was done by putting out a fire - which reached up to 300 deg C - after descending a caged ladder.

"Fires don't happen every day, so this gives our firefighters a very realistic environment to practise in," said West Coast Marine Fire Station commander Neo Jia Qi.

Marine firefighters must be comfortable jumping from heights in case they have to abandon ship during operations. To build confidence, Orca has a 9m-deep pool which they leap into from 4.5m.

Firefighters are also adept in the detection and cleaning up of chemical agents. During a decontamination drill, a pair of firefighters clad in chemical-resistant, high-performance suits placed a tarpaulin sheet over the affected area to prevent further spread of the agent before removing it with absorbents.

In real life, the case would be handed over to the National Environment Agency after mitigation.

The SCDF has three simulators at the HTTC. Apart from Orca, there is a chemical hub which provides training for hazardous material (HazMat) incidents, and an urban search and rescue training facility which simulates casualty rescue and evacuation operations.

Amid the country's maritime growth, the Marine Command division should remain a bulwark against terrorism, said Major Neo.

"There are more and more vessels coming into Singapore. Because of this, they bring a lot of possible threats and risks...

"By building up the Marine Command in SCDF, we are getting more and more ready to handle incidents should something happen one day."


Inside a marine firefighting exercise. http://str.sg/orca

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2018, with the headline 'Marine firefighters stand ready for any emergency at sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe