On Assignment
Guardians in Training: When Fire Meets Water
Fighting fires on the high seas – take the plunge with us and learn what our marine firefighting specialists undergo during training.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect – and when there are lives on the line, you want nothing less than perfection. 

This ethos drives the officers of the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s (SCDF) Marine Command, who spend close to five weeks training at the Home Team Tactical Centre (HTTC) to become marine firefighting specialists. 
To learn more about this training, we joined the SCDF for a hands-on session at the “ORCA”, a Marine Firefighting and Rescue Training Facility at the HTTC. 

Modelled after an actual sea vessel, the ORCA consists of four decks of 10 different fire compartments and 13 fire points. It stands next to a nine-metre-deep pool to simulate rescues involving dive operations. 

12 Apr 2018 ORCA HTTC SCDF
The ORCA allows for various training scenarios with access via different doors and hatches, as well as compartments that can be flooded. PHOTO: Aizil A Rahim

What Makes Marine Firefighting Challenging

A key difference between marine firefighting specialists and regular firefighters – aside from the obvious change in environment – is the support system available to both groups. 

“Out at sea, the only places where marine firefighting specialists can stay safe are on their own vessel or another vessel or floating platform,” said Major Neo Jia Qi, 35, who joined the Marine Command in 2011. “There are very few safe places, so it’s crucial that we understand safety precautions in order to operate effectively.” 

12 April 2018 SCDF HTTC ORCA Officers
SCDF has two marine fire stations, West Coast Marine Fire Station and Brani Marine Fire Station, with a collective head-count of about 200 personnel. PHOTO: Aizil A Rahim

This also means that marine firefighting specialists need to be self-reliant. “We have to haul our own equipment and devices before we can even begin operations on board a vessel,” said Marine Section Commander Warrant Officer 1 Chan Kim Mun, 42. “After hauling all our equipment, which may take up to 20 minutes or more, most of our guys will be exhausted. Still, we need to acclimatise ourselves and complete the operation as best as we can.” 

For this reason, marine firefighting specialists are trained in a variety of specialised skills. Not only can they conduct height and water rescues, they can also handle complex rescue operations and manage incidents involving hazardous materials and chemicals. 
12 Apr 2018 SCDF HTTC ORCA Engine Fire
Training facilities provide realistic training simulations and scenarios with different complexity levels. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim

Conquering the Pilot Ladder

12 Apr 2018 ORCA SCDF HTTC Pilot Ladder
Scaling the ORCA. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim

Our session at the ORCA was divided into four exercises, each highlighting specific aspects of what marine firefighting specialists do. Our first stop was the ORCA’s pilot ladder, an acrophobe’s worst nightmare but a necessary challenge any seafarer must overcome. 
Pilot ladders, which vary between 5m to 9m in length, are the marine specialists’ only means of boarding and disembarking from the vessels - and climbing one requires balance, grip and strength. Scaling the pilot ladder on a stationary ship devoid of choppy waves and seaward motion was a daunting task in itself. Too much exertion on one leg would sway the pilot ladder. 

We began climbing. The silence around us was soon punctured by “dongs” caused by our circle of amateur marine firefighting specialists as the pilot ladder slammed into the ORCA.  

Marine firefighting specialists are required to scale the pilot ladder rung-by-rung while wearing about 21kg of firefighting gear. This requires confidence, practice and patience. “The secret is to stick as close to the boat as possible,” one shared with us.
12 Apr 2018 HTTC ORCA SCDF Pilot Ladder Officer
Step-by-step up the pilot ladder. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim

Battling Engine Fires and Flashovers

Having scaled the pilot ladder, we moved to the ORCA’s engine room simulator. There, we watched as a group of marine firefighting specialist trainees battled a raging blaze while wading through knee-high water in an environment filled with deafening noise. This roar was meant to simulate situations where loud noise could affect communication between firefighters. 

12 Apr 2018 HTTC ORCA SCDF Engine Fire Inferno
Inferno in the engine room – but safety first, of course. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim
We watched the drill unfold from a distance. The flames, though far away, sent streaks of heat in our direction. One key difference to smoke from real fires, the smoke emitted during the simulation wasn’t choking; the flames were created from vegetable oil, we were told, and all part of providing a safe yet realistic training environment. Three decks above us, watchful eyes from within the training centre command post monitored the trainees via CCTV. If required, emergency stop procedures can be activated to halt the simulation. 

“Now it’s your turn,” said an SCDF officer as he ushered us out of the chamber. Donning Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), we found ourselves in a narrow corridor on one of the higher decks. 

We’d be experiencing a flashover scenario. This occurs when the contents within an enclosed space are simultaneously ignited as a result of a fire, resulting in rising temperatures and flammable gases being emitted. “Temperatures can go as high as 300 degrees Celsius,” said an SCDF safety officer.

12 Apr 2018 SCDF HTTC ORCA Corridor Flashover
Temperatures can reach as high as 300 degrees Celsius during the flashover simulation. PHOTO: Desmond Ang

We stayed close to the ground as flames danced around the ceiling of the corridor. For us – an uninitiated bunch who were already sweating under layers of PPE – a smaller flame was conjured so that we could learn the basics of firefighting. 

We fired bursts of water in rapid succession to keep the flames at bay. The recoil from the hose was sharp, and we needed strength to keep it in check. We were in the corridor for less than 10 minutes, but emerged breathless, our adrenaline pumping and our clothes drenched in sweat. 

Suited Up to Deal with Chemical Hazards

12 Apr 2018 HTTC ORCA SCDF Chemical Decontamination
Time for your close-up – members of the media experience the SCDF’s chemical response first-hand. PHOTO: Desmond Ang

We headed outdoors for our third exercise. Marine firefighting specialists are trained to handle chemical, biological and radiological incidents out at sea. To understand what they have to go through, we were presented with different types of suits that they use, depending on the type of hazard to be dealt with.

IMG_4766 2 copy
Not for the claustrophobic, but a CPS provides the best protection against any chemical hazard. PHOTO: Desmond Ang

Chemical Protection Suits (CPSes) are bright-red, high-performance decontamination suits that offer maximum protection against direct exposure. CPSes are used when there’s a need to remove a chemical hazard. 

We tried on the CPSes and were pleasantly surprised to find internal air-conditioning within them. We did a light jog to get a sense of how much the suits limited our agility. Not much, it turned out; while our movement was inhibited, we were able to perform basic functions with practice. 

A Leap of Faith

Our day culminated in a 4.5 metre leap into the ORCA’s deep pool. Marine firefighting specialists are required to undergo this jump to simulate abandoning ship. “So you walk the plank,” one reporter quipped.
12 April 2018 HTTC ORCA Confidence Jump 1
Crossed legs, body upright, nose pinched – all are crucial to taking the leap. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim

The height was daunting. While it was equivalent to jumping off the second floor of a block of flats, our imaginations were led astray by the dark blue stirring from deep within the nine-metre pool. “Keep your feet crossed; pinch your nose; make sure your posture is straight,” said the safety officer. And off we went. 

12 Apr 2018 HTTC ORCA Confidence Jump 2 SCDF
A marine firefighting specialist trainee takes the plunge from the ORCA. PHOTO: Aizil A. Rahim

The cool water proved to be a welcome reprieve from the heat. We emerged from the ORCA’s pool with relief, coupled with a better understanding of the perils faced by our marine firefighting specialists. They undergo intensive training to stay on top of their game, all to keep Singapore – and our coastal waters – safe and secure.

© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Desmond Ang
  2. 12 April 2018
Back to top