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Into the Blaze
On a Friday evening at Jalan Buroh, our firefighters fought valiantly amidst flames, plumes of black smoke and exploding gas cylinders.

Home Team News SCDF Buroh Blaze 1
PHOTO: SCDF

“It was a towering inferno,” recalled Lieutenant (LTA) Tan Chun Hui.

That was the only way she could describe what greeted her on the afternoon of 21 June. Amidst the chaos, gas cylinders shot across the air like missiles, shaking the blackened earth. It seemed like a scene from the movies – but for our first responders from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), it was happening right before their eyes.

As a gas storage facility at Jalan Buroh was set ablaze by 30-metre-tall flames, backup units poured in one after another. Soon, a 150-strong team had assembled to fight the biggest Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) fire that the SCDF had ever faced. Within 15 minutes, the battle was underway. 

Through Fresh Eyes
For those officers who were fighting a fire of this scale for the first time, the scene brought out in them a range of emotions. 

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The team synchronised human and machine operations to approach the fire in safe, incremental steps. PHOTO: SCDF

LTA (Volunteer) Lin Jia Wei, a third-year Material Science student at the National University of Singapore, had signed on with the Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit to experience firefighting on the frontline. “This was what I was looking forward to, and I was excited at first,” he recalled. “But when I got there, I was taken aback.” 

This was how Lance Corporal (NS) Muhammad Fazlan Rozali felt as well. Having been posted to Jurong Island Fire Station a few months before, he didn’t think he’d fight such a big fire so soon. 

The Veterans in Charge
Even seasoned firefighters knew the challenge before them. “When I first saw the smoke from the Fire Station, that was when I knew all my Friday appointments would be cancelled,” recalled Jurong Fire Station Commander Captain (CPT) Dinesh Verlachamy.

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Confident leaders: Rota Commander LTA Tan Chun Hui and CPT Dinesh Verlachamy led the response to the Jalan Buroh fire. PHOTO: Jermaine Ting
 
For those on the frontlines, fear is a natural, human instinct. But rather than being arrested by fear, the team prided itself on a camaraderie that allowed them to come out on top of the situation. As Major (MAJ) Navin Balakrishnan, Commander of Bukit Batok Fire Station, put it: “Camaraderie with those beside you gives you the courage to move together.”

A Strategic Operation
The operations of a firefighting team are a balance of strategic planning and careful improvisation. At Jalan Buroh, the first responders were trudging through a literal minefield, as next to the blaze was a storage facility for petroleum products. Any further spreading of the fire could have a catastrophic domino effect. For the firefighters, what mattered was not only protecting the neighbouring installations, but also ensuring the safety of their fellow officers. 

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The blaze cast in the air dark plumes of smoke that could be seen from far away. PHOTO: SCDF

LTA Chun Hui led the charge cautiously, deploying her team to kick-start the effort while searching for hydrants to supply their monitors. Seeking to contain the fire, she decided to employ boundary cooling tactics. 

To prevent the flames from spreading, Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) Syed Yazid Syed Nasiruddin deployed an unmanned water monitor to quickly deploy a water curtain across the boundary of the premises, shielding the neighbouring installation from the radiant heat of the fire. This was later reinforced by the Unmanned Firefighting Machine (UFM), which was critical in calming the flames.

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The UFM became an integral part to the operation's success, reducing the risk that the firefighters were exposed to, as well as allowing a consistent and powerful stream to be directed at the blaze without wearing out the officers. PHOTO: Jermaine Ting

Into the Fire
But it was MAJ Navin and his team that faced the most dangerous task of all. The gas storage facility housed two 60-ton bullet tanks storing LPG. If the fire had reached these tanks and heated them up, the rising internal pressure could have ruptured the tanks, causing a massive vapour explosion that would have decimated the area. Imagining if this had happened, he remarked, “We all wouldn’t be here.” 

With the LPG bullet tanks still fuelling the flames in the facility, MAJ Navin’s job was to defuse the threat they posed. The only way to do this was to manually close the 12 valves that connected the tanks to the gas supply pipes. With the flames raging, he had to act immediately. As the Commander of Bukit Batok Fire Station, MAJ Navin knew that every action had an inherent risk – but he had to lead by example. “You don’t send in your men and expose them to a risk if it’s one you can’t take yourself,” he concluded.

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Firefighters cautiously working in pairs. PHOTO: SCDF

So, with the leaking gas hissing around him, MAJ Navin entered the area alone to assess the situation. Moments later, his team followed and, together, they managed to close the 12 valves, cool down and secure the most dangerous part of the premises, preventing further disaster.

With a Little Help
The key was experience. Fortunately, as part of a safety exercise the previous year, MAJ Navin got to familiarise himself with the facility’s layout and boundaries. Thanks to this, he was able to quickly locate the bullet tanks. This “blessing in disguise” helped him to make other key decisions and coordinate strategies with his team. 

In the end, the tide turned as the elements aligned in their favour. As the winds began blowing away from the danger areas, the firefighters switched from a defensive to an offensive strategy, redeploying their machines and water jets to target the fire rather than merely preventing its spread. 

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MAJ Navin: “I think the most memorable moment was coming out as a team in the end, congratulating one another and saying 'good job.'" PHOTO: Jermaine Ting

Assess the situation, execute the plan, and reassess – this was the process that the commanders went through constantly as the fire raged on. Just as important was the teamwork between officers on the ground. “Trust your men, and the training will see us through,” concluded CPT Dinesh. 

As the fire came under control after two hours, the officers were able to directly enter the facility. Finally, at around 11pm, the flames were put to rest.

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The battle was long and arduous, and it was many hours before SCDF officers were able to penetrate into ground zero. PHOTO: SCDF

A Calm Push Forward
But just because the fire was extinguished didn’t mean their work was done. Using thermal imaging equipment, the firefighters identified the many remaining "hot-spots", continuing to damp down the area and cool potential danger zones until the wee hours of Monday morning. Most of the firefighters only left the facility in the predawn hours. A number of officers like Corporal (CPL) (NS) Thio Zhen Yang still reported for National Day Parade practice just a few hours after the fire. 

After the battle, the officers wind down in their own ways.“I drink lots of fluid to help myself recover, like sports drinks and salted water,” MAJ Navin quipped. 

“I just sleep,” said LTA Chun Hui. “A lot.” 

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Standing with pride (from left): CPL (NS) Thio Zhen Yang, LCP (NS) Muhammad Fazlan Bin Rozali, SGT Ahmad Kafee Bin Azman, WO2 Syed Yazid Bin Syed Nasiruddin, CPT Dinesh Verlachamy, MAJ Navin Balakrishnan, LTA Tan Chun Hui, LTA (V) Lin Jia Wei, SSG Fairoz Bin Mohd Salleh. PHOTO: Jermaine Ting

Bonded by Fire
Firefighters know that their work requires a commitment that equals what they give to their families. LTA (V) Jia Wei recalled how his mother had called him twice out of concern while he was at the incident site. On the other hand, for Staff Sergeant (SSG) Fairoz Bin Mohd Salleh, his wife now knows not to call him when he’s on duty. Their four-year-old son may not yet be able to comprehend SSGT Fairoz’ heroics, but that day will come.

No matter the challenge, our firefighters are ready to face their next battle, together. 

After all, they’ve been bonded by fire.

  1. by Soo Jun Xiang
  2. 03 July 2019
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