It is exactly 27 years since I joined the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) back in November 1993. While it is not long by the standards of a full career, I have been privileged to be involved in a fair amount of transformation in the organisation.
I recall pump ladders were manned by 8-crew members when I was a young shift commander at a fire station after graduation from the training school. It became six crew when I was a fire station commander in 1998. Today, we are at a 4-crew configuration and from 2022, we should see the gradual introduction of a 3-crew and a firefighting robot on our Light Fire Attack Vehicles or Red Rhinos.
Organisational transformation is not common in fire services compared to other professions and there are reasons for it, including perhaps how fires are fought and extinguished which, to be honest, has not changed much across decades.
However, tactical arrangements should not impede strategic ambition, as there are so much more to gain from transformation such as improved efficiency and by extension, the quality of service provision, better management of risks to personnel, cost optimisation, modernisation that meets the expectations of the new workforce, etc. So what is transformation for a fire department?
It is beyond acquiring a new piece of equipment or vehicle. Transformation entails comprehensive changes in strategy, operating model, mental model and processes. The objective is to attain a dramatic improvement in performance that places the organisation on a new growth trajectory. I shall try to contextualise this using SCDF’s experience in transformation but I must qualify that the intent is never to suggest that that’s the model – on the contrary, it will always be work-in-progress and besides, no two organisations are similar.
A Nation of Lifesavers is the bold Transformation 2025 vision of SCDF when we embarked on the 10-year journey in 2015. We envisioned that in an emergency, the public should have the skills and knowledge to get themselves out of harm’s way and help those around them before the arrival of emergency responders. A segment of the public can also contribute as active responders. In effect, the operating model is not a conventional one that sits squarely with the Force but is co-owned with the public on a continuum where the latter are community first responders (CFRs) and SCDF, emergency responders. This reshaped business model is fundamental, as emergency responders will inevitably be “late” to arrive at any emergency scene compared to those at the vicinity.
Training of the public in emergency preparedness skills does not happen by chance. In fact, the outreach has to be structured and multi-pronged from schools to workplaces to residential estates. Community Emergency Preparedness Programmes (CEPP) are tiered from Level 1 to 3 and offered through many platforms. The COVID- 19 pandemic has accelerated the online availability of these training. The pinnacle Level 3 (Lifesaver Programme) trained and other relevant skilled persons can register on SCDF’s myResponder app as an active responder and be available for activation by SCDF to assist in a minor fire or a cardiac arrest emergency if he/she is within 400m from an incident. Today, over 30% of SCDF’s emergency calls are complemented by CFRs and we are at the midpoint of the transformation journey.
At the heart of any transformation, key enablers are essential. For SCDF, we are leveraging innovation and science & technology. As an analogy, technology is like a sailboat fully equipped and ready, and an innovation strategy is the accompanying strong winds that will carry the boat to its destination.
When applied through an innovation strategy, technology is a major force multiplier. For instance, multi-language speech to text artificial intelligence and signals from sensors will enable call specialists at emergency call centres to triage calls expeditiously and sense-make with high accuracy. Deployment of standby resources for the next emergency call need not be static but dynamically guided by data analytics and visualisation, which then open up new opportunities like a dynamic shift system that optimally meets demand peak and trough.
Instead of a pair of firefighters manoeuvring a water jet in a fire, a firefighter (possibly from an offsite central command) can be manoeuvring several firefighting robots. Applying the science of human factors to the training of firefighters is not common but it can reduce fatigue, injury and optimise performance and hence, safety in dangerous conditions.
Similarly, science can also be applied to reduce heat-stress on firefighters during operations to protect our most valuable asset. On the upstream, successful application of fire science (through evidence-based methods such as fire forensics and research) and modern technologies into buildings’ fire safety designs should translate to an eventual decline in fire incident response by fire departments particularly in urban cities.
Transformation does not occur unexpectedly and smoothly. It has to be planned and orchestrated with conviction, and continually communicated to employees every step of the journey. In SCDF, we formed a dedicated department – Transformation & Future Technology Department – to undertake blue-sky thinking and spearhead our transformation efforts. The importance of internal communication cannot be overstated and this should be accompanied by change management activities to ease adjustment, adaptation and upskilling across the organisation.
Fire services are steep in traditions that connect firefighters to the celebrated roots, spirits, and values of the noble profession. However, traditions should not define the boundary of possibilities, which is infinite if we look beyond the horizon.
SCDF is different today compared to when I joined the service. I am certain it will be much different come 2025.