On my first day in Singapore, I went for a long walk and noticed the historic Central Fire Station as I passed. It's a hard building to not notice! An hour later, walking back to my hotel, I was passing the station when a heavy rain started and I was fortunate enough to notice the entrance to a small (dry!) museum in the building.
At a first glance, it appeared to be largely a collection of retired fire engines and memorabilia, but as I walked through the exhibits I realized there was much more to be learned; the museum actually tells stories not just about fire-fighting but about Singapore's growth from British colony to major independent power and how the city's development as a dense metropolis changed the needs and focus of its emergency services.
Fire Brigade uniform, 1930s to 1970s
Over the early years, Singapore had only sketchy arrangements for fire-fighting; the first real professional fire brigade was created in 1888. By 1910, the Central Fire Station and two others were built for it. Over the years, its role grew to include disaster and rescue operations and some maritime functions; it's now called the Singapore Civil Defense Force.
Most changes in the force's mission and structure came about after major challenges, including the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II; before the invasion, the Fire Brigade played a big role in preparing civil defense. After the invasion, most of the firefighters were imprisoned. A Fire Auxiliary service created in 1939 was disbanded.
After the war, the Brigade was rebuilt, but faced new challenges; the city grew rapidly, and many were living in settlements at the city's fringes, in quickly-built and densely-packed wooden housing. One of those areas, Bukit Hoo Swee, suffered a disastrous fire in May 1961, destroying 2,800 houses and leaving about 16,000 homeless. Amazingly, only four people died.
The fire led to major changes in the city's building and development programs, and also in more training and funding for the department, which also took on more responsibility for fire prevention.
The 1961 fire was the low-rise challenge. But Singapore was also filling up with tall buildings, some of them very tall. Dealing with issues of high-rise fires and building collapses also became part of the mission. The museum includes a series of scenes of training for high-rise fires dramatically presented as though the viewer were entering the building through an elevator with the brigade.
Other exhibits highlight the Civil Defense Force's role in dealing with industrial or environmental disasters.
As a recognized leader in the field, the SCDF earned UN certification, and takes part in training for other countries' departments.
The exhibits begin on the ground floor of the gallery, a space carved out from the Central Fire Station, and continue one floor up. Returning to ground level, there are cases with old insignia, helmets and more, from Singapore and collected from other departments.
And, of course, a small gift shop...
Just outside, a sculpture honors the members of the Civil Defense Force.