SCDF to close pump wells at stations after NSF's drowning

It will also boost anti-ragging measures, enhance disciplinary and whistle-blowing frameworks

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) will decommission all 19 pump wells located at fire stations, after a full-time national serviceman (NSF) drowned in one during a ragging incident in May.

This builds on an earlier move to install metal gratings over the openings of the wells to prevent unauthorised access.

The SCDF also said it will step up initiatives to institute in officers a "zero-tolerance" stance against ragging, and enhance its disciplinary and whistle-blowing frameworks to give more assurance to those who speak up that they will be protected.

These measures were announced by the SCDF yesterday in response to recommendations submitted by a Board of Inquiry convened to look into the May 13 fatal accident.

The board, which was convened by Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on May 22, submitted its report to the minister on Aug 28.

Mr Shanmugam, who has accepted the recommendations in full, said: "The recommendations will help the SCDF eradicate unauthorised activities such as ragging. The conduct of the officers involved was unacceptable."

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, said those who were assessed to be criminally culpable have been charged, while others will be investigated for departmental disciplinary actions.

On May 13, Corporal Kok Yuen Chin, 22, was celebrating his impending operationally ready date (ORD) with his squad mates at Tuas View Fire Station.

UNACCEPTABLE CONDUCT

The recommendations will help the SCDF eradicate unauthorised activities such as ragging. The conduct of the officers involved was unacceptable.

HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM

As part of ragging activities, he was pushed into the station's 12m-deep pump well. A pump well is a reservoir of water used by fire station personnel for training and the testing of fire engine pumps.

Cpl Kok did not surface, and the first SCDF serviceman jumped in to try to rescue him eight seconds later. Other servicemen also jumped in to try to locate him.

Cpl Kok was extracted from the pump well about 36 minutes after he fell in. He was pronounced dead at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

To decommission the wells, the SCDF said they will be filled up with granite chips and covered with concrete slabs.

These works are expected to be completed by December. This will not affect operations as the testing of fire engine water pumps and related training can be conducted at the Civil Defence Academy (CDA) in Jalan Bahar, it added.

Asked about its plans to centralise all testing and training at the CDA, the SCDF said the academy has three pump wells. "All SCDF fire station personnel are rostered to undergo scenario-based training drills at CDA every quarter. The testing of the fire engine water pumps and related training will be scheduled to coincide with these rostered drills," it added.

The Board of Inquiry found that the SCDF had clear anti-ragging policies and measures in place. Servicemen were informed of this through briefing sessions, and during interviews with commanders, for example.

Noting that the incident still took place, the board put forth several recommendations to the SCDF, which included further reviewing its anti-ragging measures and helping servicemen better internalise the anti-ragging policy.

While it had already stepped up its anti-ragging measures following the accident, such as introducing stiffer penalties, the SCDF said yesterday that it will do more.

A code of conduct will be established requiring all officers to internalise the SCDF's zero-tolerance stance against ragging. A set of guidelines has also been introduced for officers who plan to organise informal gatherings, such as to celebrate a serviceman's ORD. Commanders will be trained to know how to identify vulnerable individuals and pre-empt and prevent unacceptable behaviour in the SCDF.

The Board of Inquiry's work is separate from investigations by the Singapore Police Force, which have resulted in five SCDF personnel being charged in court in July. Another eight SCDF officers are also being investigated.

Cpl Kok's aunt, Madam Helen Kok, 55, said the SCDF should have implemented these anti-ragging measures early on, and not waited until a life was lost.

Mr Tan Jin Thong, a former SCDF deputy commissioner who retired in 1999, thinks decommissioning all pump wells at fire stations is "a bit of an overreaction". Mr Tan, 79, said there are fire stations located across the island, and having to send fire engines to the CDA is inefficient.

"This case is not about somebody slipping and falling in. It is about someone being mischievous and pushing another person in. That kind of thing should be stopped - educate and monitor the servicemen, and have more safety protocols," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline 'SCDF to close pump wells at stations after NSF's drowning'. Print Edition | Subscribe