SINGAPORE: Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers will now be given the legal powers to break down doors or close roads to perform emergency and rescue operations in non-fire fighting cases, after multiple amendments to the Civil Defence Act were approved in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 20).
Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo announced that the amendments seek to achieve three objectives: enhance SCDF’s operational response and efficiency; codify the powers and protection SCDF officers need to do their work effectively; and strengthen SCDF’s disciplinary and human resource processes
Some of the changes will be applied to legislation pertaining to other Home Team departments, so as to standardise policies across the likes of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and the Singapore Prison Service.
Following the amendments, SCDF officers will now be explicitly allowed to - during non-fire peacetime operations - enter a person's home and remove obstacles that block their way in order to reach and extricate persons in emergency situations.
They will also be afforded legal protection for actions undertaken during operations, for example damaging vehicles to rescue trapped victims. Currently, SCDF officers do not have statutory protection from legal liability and “this is not ideal”, said Mrs Teo.
“SCDF officers ought to be allowed to focus on the job at hand, on saving lives, without being distracted by concerns about whether they may be charged or sued for damages caused while performing their duties,” she added.
This widening of powers and protection from legal liability will also be extended to private ambulance operators as well as Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) medics attached to SCDF, when they are attending to Emergency Medical Services calls.
A few Members of Parliament (MPs) sought clarification on the circumstances under which the powers and protections would apply, leading Mrs Teo to assure the House that these are “not unconditional” and come into force only when officers have “acted in good faith and with reasonable care”.
“An officer will be judged to have acted in good faith, if his actions were coherent and consistent with the intent to save lives, prevent harm to health, or protect property. So there are very tight conditions set around the idea … And he will be judged to have acted with reasonable care, if his actions were of a standard commensurate with his skill and experience for that particular situation.
“As long as SCDF officers and authorised individuals act with integrity and competence, they will have no difficulties meeting the bar," Mrs Teo said.
“We are also cognisant that no training or SOP can cover the full range of operational contingencies,” Mrs Teo added. “Hence, any evaluation ... will also take into account whether his decisions were reasonable under those circumstances - for instance, he may be working with incomplete information and dealing with severe time constraints.”
MANDATING PUBLIC WARNING SIRENS, FINGERPRINT ACCESS
The amendments also dictate that it will now be an offence for building owners to not provide SCDF with space and access to install emergency devices such as Public Warning System sirens.
Those found guilty of non-compliance may be fined up to S$10,000 or jailed up to three years. Non-compliant building owners may also be fined up to S$1,000 for each day of noncompliance after conviction.
Additionally, SCDF will also be empowered to enter buildings to assess, maintain and repair the devices. Any wilful removal, destruction, damage or tampering of the devices will be an offence - punishable by a fine of up to S$50,000 and imprisonment of up to three years.
“SCDF gets permission from building owners before the sirens are installed on their premises. Unfortunately, there have been occasions when permission is not granted," Mrs Teo explained.
“Some owners cite concerns about noise pollution, even though the sirens are typically sounded for only about six minutes in total in any year, and only during the day. Others tell us bluntly that they are not obliged to cooperate, since there is no law that requires them to.
“As a result of their refusal to cooperate, SCDF has to look for alternative locations. But this may lead to sub-optimal placement of the sirens, which may result in members of the public in some areas not being able to hear the sirens as well. More sirens may even have to be installed to ensure sufficient reach, at increased costs to the public.”
Another piece of legislation will empower SCDF officers attending to Emergency Medical Services calls to obtain the fingerprints or other personal identifiers of a patient whose identity is not known, and is unconscious or otherwise unable to communicate.
“In 2017, SCDF attended to some 165,000 EMS patients. SCDF was unable to confirm the identities of about 8 per cent, or 14,000, of them,” said Mrs Teo. “If such patients could have been identified, the ambulance crew would have been able to expeditiously obtain the relevant health information from MOH, and deliver more appropriate and timely medical interventions.
“For instance, crew members can avoid administering drugs to which the patient has known allergies. Or, if they know that a patient with breathing difficulties has a history of asthma, they can administer the relevant drug immediately. They can also share the patient’s identity with the hospital, so that preparations can already be made at the Emergency Department even while the patient is being conveyed there by SCDF.”
In response to concerns raised by MP Melvin Yong over safeguards for personal information, Mrs Teo said access rights would be strictly controlled and restricted to only what is necessary to provide timely and effective care.
There will also be measures to reduce risk of unauthorised access - such as encryption and password protection. Anyone found to have abused their access will be severely dealt with and potentially charged in court.
BEEFING UP HR, DISCIPLINARY PROCESSES
The amended Act will also allow SCDF NSmen to serve beyond the stipulated maximum age of 40 for those ranked Senior Warrant Officer and below, and 50 for Second Lieutenants and above.
Said Mrs Teo: “This will allow SCDF to continue tapping their valuable expertise, honed through many years of experience. It is in line with what SAF and Police NSmen are currently allowed to do.”
It will also be an offence for SCDF officers to not comply with orders to go for medical examinations or treatment.
The same goes for any person who impersonates or misrepresents himself as an SCDF officer. Those found guilty may be fined up to S$2,500 and jailed up to six months. Manufacturing or selling SCDF uniforms or insignia without authorisation from SCDF will also result in a fine of up to S$10,000 and a jail term of up to three years.
A number of changes will also be introduced to SCDF’s summary trial process. First, SCDF national servicemen can be tried within three years from the day an offence was reported or discovered. This addresses situations where offences only come to light later.
Next, SCDF will not have to make up for the loss of civilian remuneration for NSmen reporting for summary trial after committing a service offence. A new mechanism will also be provided to facilitate appeals against findings or punishments and lastly, the maximum fine quanta for disciplinary offences will be aligned with those for SAF national servicemen.