Let’s tell a story.
I’m working my 24 hr (work 24 hours, off 48 hours) duty. It’s 1100 and I just finished morning lecture (equipment drill and familiarisation) in the engine bay of my fire station. It’s a Saturday so our rota (platoon-ish) orders nasi lemak. Coding comes in over the loudspeaker and we turn out to a case of locked door, suspected DOA (decomposing body).
Traffic doesn’t give way to our LF (red rhino), as per usual (smh). We arrive at the HDB unit and instantly we smell the dead body. The knowledge of smell will come with experience. The niece, who called 995, asks me if her uncle will be ok. I already know the body is decomposing but I reply “We’re unsure, but we’ll try our best”. I lie to her face. My pump operator (PO, and the only regular in the crew) looks at me and grimaces. We’ve been in this situation together many times before. We easily break the door and the smell intensifies.
I go in first, followed by the ambulance (alpha) paramedic. We find the body on the bed in the master bedroom. The paramedic tells me, “About two weeks”. The body is severely bloated, skin green and black. The face is unrecognizable as it has bloated too much. Bile attempts to escape from between the discolored lips creating bubbles. The smell is sweet but rotten and my fireman gags. I get the relevant information I need and step out for a breather. The niece looks at me and asks what is going on. I look at her and I know she knows he’s dead. “You uncle… has passed away”. I turn away to avoid the emotions. Emotions are killers in this line of work.
We get back in time for nasi lemak lunch. The chicken is a bit soggy this week. The smell of rotten flesh lingers in my nostrils. I watch the Malay romantic drama that my enciks chose on the TV. It’s ok, the girl is cute.
Before dinner we get another call – unit fire confirm case. We race there and reach before the fire engine (pumper). They’re caught in traffic and will take another few minutes. Two firefighters and I proceed to the unit. Instantly the thick black smoke chokes my throat and waters my eyes. I struggle with my breathing cylinder because the air hose delivery tool is stuck between my backplate and my back. I say fuck it, neighbours are already screaming for us to hurry. The pressure escalates but I close myself off from the members of public, just like normal. We all focus. The only things I listen to are my matra (radio) and my fireman. I just wear my facemask for minimal protection and crawl in.
The fire is well alight on the stove and I shoot at it. The smoke limits my visibility to 0, I now can’t see my fingers as I stretch out my arm. I crawl back out and get stuck on a fallen wire. I panic as I think of my family. Emotions are dangerous. A fire biker crawls in and frees me. We step out and I tell the crew the fire is almost finished but our CAF backpacks are finished (water foam sprayers). I send the firefighters down to set up water supply from hydrant and crawl back in with the firebiker. The smoke makes it feel like someone just threw hot ash down my throat. We extinguish the fire using an ass-washing hose from the kitchen toilet. I am coughing badly but he sprays my face with the hose. The kitchen is badly burnt. I can feel the smoke damage in my lungs. The owner and neighbours pat me on the back and thank me for saving their home as I walk out. I smile but I know I took another step closer to death.
We get back at 2200 and order McDonalds. It is the best Double McSpicy I’ve eaten in a while.
At lunch the next day my friend (SAF LTA) tells me how stressful being an instructor at SAFTI has been recently. I remember as my cylinder got trapped on the fallen wire, and how I thought of my family in those few struggling seconds. I nod my head and grunt. ” SAF has it tough with JCC and everything huh?” I joke. He agrees enthusiastically.
All in a day’s work for the NSFs in SPF/SCDF. If we fail, someone dies from our direct actions. Welcome to NS. No second chances or semula. Just death. I wish the public knew the risks that some NSFs take each day. We might not be as fit as NDU or as garang as commandos, but we put our lives on the line literally every day.
As an NSF I can say I have saved many lives, fought many fires and contributed to Singapore. No play acting or training for a war that will never happen (though I understand the incredible need for an armed military). I love my job, I love NS and wouldn’t trade it for anything else (maybe an EMT vocation).
I am still amazed that many members of public still associate NS with army. I wish people would know. There’s no greater feeling in this world than knowing some uncle I helped rescue on my first duty at 0200 will live to eat his favourite mee pok or talk cock with his kakis because of my direct actions. Pride and care right?
At least I get paid $1400 a month (;