In a previous e-article of Rescue 995, SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh Bin Ali, affectionately and commonly known as Encik Agayle, walked us down the memory lane of his life as a firefighter and trainer in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) for the past 45 years.
In this second and final part article, Encik Agayle recalled some of the major incidents which he had responded to during the early days of his career.
Rescue 995: Encik, what were some of the major or memorable operations which you had attended to in your illustrious career?
Mohd Salleh: One of the major incidents which I could still recall vividly was a huge fire at Pulau Bukom oil refinery in 1981. I was just promoted to a leading fireman then and had completed my attachment at the former Jurong Fire Station to train the recruits from the Singapore Fire Service.
Pulau Bukom Fire, 1981. Source: The Straits Times.
When my crew and I arrived at the fire scene, we were momentarily shocked as it was the biggest fire we had ever seen! Back in the 1970s, I had attended to numerous big fire incidents such as those involving kampong houses and warehouses with zinc roofing. However, these fires paled in comparison to the intensity of the oil tank fire at Pulau Bukom. Struck by lightning in the early morning of 18 April 1981, the roof of an oil tank was ignited with fires and it burned for 15 hours. More than 100 firemen from the Singapore Fire Service were activated to mitigate the burning tank.
It was very challenging for us as there was always the risk of explosions on the island from the petrol and gas pipelines. I recalled being tasked to proceed to a nearby sector that had Naphtha tanks to do boundary cooling operation, that is to apply large volume of water jets to cool these tanks from the radiant heat of the raging fire. Naphtha is a liquid hydrocarbon mixture that is flammable and if the fire had spread to this sector, the outcome would be devastating. It took the firefighters lots of guts and perseverance to cool the surrounding Naphtha tanks. Yes, my crew and I were afraid, very afraid but it was something that we just had to do and do it right.
Pulau Merlimau Fire, 1988.
A few years later on 25 October 1988, there was another oil refinery fire and this time, it was at Pulau Merlimau. I was a Duty Officer at Woodlands Fire Station then. When the fire incident occurred, we were immediately deployed for the incident. In those days, we had to travel by boat to Pulau Merlimau. While travelling by boat mid-way towards the offshore island, the sky was already dark, and the heat was terribly intense due to the raging fire that was bellowing thick, black acrid smoke. Even at a considerable distance away from the fire, I felt a strong burning sensation especially on the back of my neck. I had to quickly adjust my fireman hood to ensure it fully covered and protected by entire neck.
Once on the island, due to our previous oil tank firefighting experience at Pulau Bukom, we managed to put the fire under control after several hours of vigorous fire-fighting operation. However, the fire was not fully extinguished until about a week later with tons of foam solution. Throughout the fire-fighting operation, none of us went home.
Rescue 995: Were you also involved in the Spyros incident, a major industrial disaster in 1978?
Mohd Salleh: Aha… the Spyros saga in October 1978. A spark from a cutting torch caused the fuel tank of the ship, Spyros, stationed at the Jurong shipyard to explode. It turned the entire engine room into an inferno, killing 76 persons; many burnt to death.
I was only three years into my fire-fighting career then with the Singapore Fire Brigade, the predecessor to the Singapore Fire Service (formed in 1980). I was part of the relief crew tasked to search and retrieve the mass casualties within the ship. Being there at the scene was such a heart wrenching experience for me. Frankly, it was my first encounter with mass fatality. I read that the Spyros disaster remains the worst industrial accident in terms of lives lost in post-war Singapore and it led to enhanced safety measures in the local shipbuilding industry.
Rescue 995: What would you say are the differences between firefighting then and now?
Mohd Salleh: During the early days of my career, the equipment and appliances we had were made for that era. They were simple yet effective for their time. In terms of firefighting strategy, it was more defensive firefighting as compared to today’s more offensive, deep penetration firefighting operation, into the heart of the raging fire.
Back in the 70s, as I had said earlier, fires largely involved kampong houses and zinc roofed warehouses as well as hectares of bush fires. In the 80s, we had more industrial and refinery fires. You would also notice that the buildings we had in the past were low rise and made of different materials, and thus as we changed with time, with more built-in fire safety features in the high-rise buildings, our firefighting strategy and equipment naturally had to evolve as well.
Over the years, especially from the late 1990s’ onwards, SCDF made a lot of enhancements to its capabilities including its arsenal of firefighting and rescue equipment as well as appliances, first through adaptions and later by means of our very own innovations.
When it comes to training new batches of firefighters, staying relevant is very important. When we started the Civil Defence Academy (CDA) in 1999, I had a gut feel at that time that this training academy is going to be one of the best in the world. Today, I am proud to say that CDA is indeed a reputable training academy in the global firefighting fraternity, frequented by many emergency responders and visitors throughout the world.
The former Civil Defence Training School (Nee Soon Camp) where
Encik Agayle was posted to in 1993.
Encik Agayle jogging with the recruits back to
Jurong Fire Station after a drill at Chinese Garden (April 1980).
The former Civil Defence Training School (Hougang Camp) where
Encik Agayle trained his trainees in 1997.
The Civil Defence Academy (1999 to present) where Encik Agayle
continued to train many cohorts of trainees until the day he retired 15 Jul 2020.
Rescue 995: What do you normally share with your trainees at the Civil Defence Academy (CDA)?
Mohd Salleh: I would always tell my trainees, ‘Don’t take things for granted in terms of the sophisticated equipment we have now, the skills and knowledge we are imparting to you. Safety must always come first — wear your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) properly, master your operational skills, and do your appreciation of situation well before executing your tasks. These… these… are the fundamentals for any life savers.’
I also like to tell my trainees about my old-time stories both in terms of fire-fighting operations and the nature of training then.
This is one of my favourite stories to my trainees:
During my time as a firefighter, it was very much on-the-job training. I observed, inquired and learned as much as possible from my seniors. I learnt from the veterans that even from a distance when approaching a fire scene, just by observing the smoke, we could accurately determine what was on fire. For example, when the smoke was pitch dark, it was typically rubber products like tyres on fire. When the smoke was yellow, it involved wood-based materials like furniture. When the smoke was bluish or greenish colour, it meant hazardous or toxic chemicals. But with puffing clouds of white smoke, then someone was extinguishing the fire. By observing, or at times inhaling the smoke from a distance, we could accurately tell the nature of the fire.
Left picture:Encik Agayle conducting a training at the former Civil Defence Training Facility (Mandai Training Village). Right picture: Encik Agayle conducting a footdrill lesson at the Multi-purpose Hall at the former Civil Defence Training School (Nee Soon Camp).
Rescue 995: Finally Encik Agayle, what are your parting words of advice to members of The Life Saving Force?
Mohd Salleh: Always stay positive, never give up and be professional in whatever you do in your life saving mission. There will always bound to be challenges but if you do your very best and work as a team, nothing is impossible to overcome. Most importantly, whether you are a career officer, a full-time NSF, NSman or even a recruit, treat SCDF not merely as just another job or duty but internalise it to be a part of your family.
Now that I am retired, I really miss this family and the camaraderie we had for the past 45 years. The Life Saving Force will always be a part of me for it is my family.