SCDF to decommission fire station pump wells following drowning of NSF during ragging incident

The 12m-deep pump well that Corporal Kok Yuen Chin entered during the ragging incident that led to his death. PHOTO: SINGAPORE CIVIL DEFENCE FORCE

SINGAPORE - 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 that 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 on Thursday (Sept 13), in response to recommendations submitted by a Board of Inquiry convened to look into the fatal accident that took place on May 13.

The Board, which was convened by Home Affairs and Law 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."

"Those who were assessed to be criminally culpable have been charged and will answer for their actions in court. The others will be investigated for departmental disciplinary actions," he said.

"We will do whatever we can to ensure that no more officers come to harm because of such activities," he added.

On May 13, Corporal (Cpl) Kok Yuen Chin, 22, a Singapore permanent resident from Malaysia, was celebrating his impending operationally ready date with his squad mates at Tuas View Fire Station, when the tragedy occurred.

As part of ragging activities, Cpl Kok was pushed into the station's pump well by one of the SCDF officers.

A pump well is a reservoir of water used by fire station personnel for training and the testing of pumps for fire engines.

According to his family, he could not swim. An SCDF serviceman jumped into the well eight seconds later to look for him.

Other servicemen jumped in as well, and various means to rescue Cpl Kok were used, including pumping water out of the well.

Cpl Kok was extracted from the pump well about 36 minutes after he had fallen 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 in Jalan Bahar, the SCDF 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," the SCDF said.

In its investigations, the Board of Inquiry interviewed and obtained statements from over 50 SCDF personnel, and visited Tuas View Fire Station.

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

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

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

A code of conduct will be established, requiring all officers to internalise SCDF's zero-tolerance stance against ragging. Ragging will also be acknowledged as contrary to the SCDF's core values.

A set of guidelines has also been introduced for officers who plan to organise informal gatherings, such as to celebrate a serviceman's operationally ready date.

Commanders will also be trained to "know how to identify vulnerable individuals and pre-empt and prevent unacceptable behaviour in SCDF, including ragging", the SCDF said.

Long-serving officers who are not in formal command positions but who wield informal influence on the ground will also be engaged as anti-ragging ambassadors.

"SCDF is committed to eradicating ragging within our ranks, and preventing any further tragic and needless loss of lives, even as our servicemen continue to serve the nation in fire-fighting and other emergency and rescue operations," the SCDF said.

The Board of Inquiry's work is separate from investigations by the Singapore Police Force, which has resulted in five SCDF personnel being charged in court in July.

Another eight SCDF officers who were also present during the ragging incident are being investigated, it was reported earlier.

Mr Shanmugam said on Thursday: "Cpl Kok's death was a most tragic loss, both for his family and SCDF. Our thoughts continue to be with his family, and we will support and assist them in any way we can."

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

She said her brother, Cpl Kok's father, cried after reading the report of the findings, which was shared with the family.

For them, questions still remain. Madam Kok, a nurse, asked: "Safety is so important. How did they get approval to access the pump well that night?"

Mr Tan Jin Thong, a former SCDF deputy commissioner who retired in 1999, thinks that the move to decommission all pump wells at fire stations is "a bit of an over-reaction".

Mr Tan, 79, said there are fire stations located across the island, and having to send all the fire engines to the CDA is inefficient. For safety, pump wells at stations can be made wider and shallower, he suggested.

"This case is not about somebody slipping and falling in. It's 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 told The Straits Times.

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