Changi Airport has consistently been ranked the top airport in the world across decades by various publications and rating organisations. One of the criteria for assessing the quality of an airport is its safety record.
The safety of our civilian and military airports rests in the hands of one force – the Airport Emergency Service (AES). Since the 1930s, there have been seven chiefs of the emergency response organisations at our airports. Four of those seven have been SG Indians.
Firefighting/being an emergency responder is a not typical career choice. Neither is it one that you will consider to be glamorous. People who join this service are often driven by a higher calling and are not solely motivated by monetary concerns.
…when you see something developing, you need to act.”
– Head of Planning, Ram Das Brabakaran (left)
Being the best version of oneself
Head of Planning, Ram Das Brabakaran said: “Having worked at a bank, I felt that the corporate environment just wasn’t the right setting for me, that would help me become the best version of myself. Here at AES, and especially if you are in a leadership position, you can help mould young men into the best versions of themselves.”
Like Ram, Senior Airport Emergency Officer and part-time MediaCorp actor Prakash s/o Arasu did not want a deskbound job. He said: “As an officer during NS (National Service), one of my greatest pleasures and honour was to groom individuals into positions of responsibility. So, when I graduated, I was quite set on joining a uniformed service.”
“While acting is my passion, serving at AES is my mission,” he added
Chandramohan Mutthayan, Officer Commanding AES, Paya Lebar Airbase has been with the Service for close to three decades. “In the private sector, in non-uniformed roles, it’s all about profit and loss at the end of the day,” he said. “At AES however, it’s not about making money. We are in this to save lives.”
How aircraft ‘firefighting’ is different
Responding to an emergency at an airport or to an aircraft is not the same as fighting a fire at a building.
“This is a very unique vocation, requiring very specialised skillsets – for one thing, you need to know all the different aircrafts, and the unique factors relating to them,” said Ram.
While acting is my passion, serving at AES is my mission.”
– Senior Airport Emergency Officer Prakash s/o Arasu (right)
As aircrafts may be carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, they are highly combustible objects to start with. In addition, given the enclosed spaces of an aircraft, smoke can fill the cabin very quickly, causing death due to asphyxiation.
“Not only must the response time be quick, we don’t have the liberty of making mistakes.” Chandramohan said. “Our turnout has to be fast – within 90 seconds of being alerted to an incident and within 3 minutes, we must have evacuated all passengers.”
“Sometimes you don’t have the best knowledge, and you have to make quick decisions based on the available knowledge, and it would be impossible to have an SOP (standard operating procedure) for every possible situation. The most important thing is that you when see something developing, you need to act,” Ram added.
Staying cool and making snap decisions
Ram recounts a 2017 incident when fire filled the entire Changi Airport Terminal 2 with smoke, and some 4,000 people – passengers, shoppers and staff needed to be evacuated. As confusion reigned at the assembly area, things needed to be quickly managed and Ram unhesitatingly took up a loud hailer to get things under control.
Many of the emergency situations that AES staff have to deal with often don’t involve actual fires so branding AES staff as ‘firefighters’ would be limiting. “Changi Airport has an excellent safety record,” Prakash said. “We hardly put out any fires.”
The ability to act under pressure is also critical, Prakash said: “Working under duress in a highly fluid situation with many moving parts is key – for example, if it was an aircraft fire, you need to coolly but quickly assess factors such as the wind direction, the behaviour of the passengers, as well as the unique factors relating to the type of aircraft we were dealing with, before deciding on the best course of action.”
Espirit de corps
However, it’s not all work and no play when you join the AES. In fact, Chandramohan said that what made the Service different from any other private sector job is the espirit de corps they forge: “The camaraderie and friendships that you build with the guys is something that I would dare say, you don’t have anywhere else. In fact, in my younger days, before I got married, the camaraderie was so good that I didn’t even go back after work. We stayed at the station, shared experiences, played volleyball and football and all that.”
“This is something that we don’t really have in the private sector, because out there you are often competing with each other, but here, we need to work as a team, and when the time comes, you hold the life of each other in your hands,” Chandramohan added.
“Not only must the response time be quick, we don’t have the liberty of making mistakes.”
– Commander Chandramohan Mutthayan
(left, overseeing his men).
Do you have what it takes to be an emergency responder?
Fitness – “Fitness is an absolute must – the cardiovascular stamina and the physical strength to carry a casualty out, somebody who may be weighing 80 kilograms or more.” – Chandramohan
Ability to Think Situationally – “In emergencies, the ability to size up the range of variables and make decisions in a split second can often mean the difference between life and death.” – Ram
Courage – “Mental strength is as or perhaps even more important than physical strength; the courage to run towards a fire when others are running away from it.” – Chandramohan
Operational readiness – “We have to keep ourselves in the game by regularly running through different scenarios via trainings and table top exercises.” – Prakash
Teamwork – “Emergency responders need to gel very well as a team, because in an actual incident, you need to be able to watch each other’s backs and trust each other with your lives.” – Chandramohan
Ownership – “We have to take ownership of the integrity of vehicles and equipment as its our bread and butter. However, as invaluable as the machine is, the human element is indispensable.” – Prakash
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