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Marine firefighters stand ready for any emergency at sea

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.

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.”

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