How This Civil Defence Volunteer Keeps The Firefighting Spirit Alive

In celebration of 150 years of civil defence volunteerism, Challenge speaks to SCDF’s oldest volunteer, Auxiliary Heritage Gallery guide WO(V) Yunnos Shariff.
WO(V) Yunnos poses in front of a vintage fire engine, the Dennis Fire Tender, at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. This fire engine was deployed to put out the Bukit Ho Swee fires in 1961.
WO(V) Yunnos poses in front of a vintage fire engine, the Dennis Fire Tender, at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. This fire engine was deployed to put out the Bukit Ho Swee fires in 1961.

Visitors to the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery at the iconic Central Fire Station on Hill Street, don’t be surprised if the guide on duty says something unexpected after the tour.

“I tell them to write in the guestbook as it is important for us, and I say, ‘You can write bad things too’,” jokes former firefighter WO(V) Yunnos Shariff.

The affable 75-year-old is a volunteer with the Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit (CDAU), working at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery as an Auxiliary Heritage Gallery guide.

CDAU volunteers help out with a range of civil defence duties, including firefighting and rescue, fire safety enforcement, public education and serving as guides at the gallery.

WO(V) Yunnos, while still sprightly, no longer takes part in firefighting. He now gives tours to visitors at the gallery and helps in the upkeep of vintage exhibits. He even helped his manager to identify the people in old photos.

WO(V) Yunnos through the window of a Dennis F12 fire engine at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. This fire engine was in service from 1951 to 1979.
WO(V) Yunnos through the window of a Dennis F12 fire engine at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. This fire engine was in service from 1951 to 1979.

A firefighter all his life, WO(V) Yunnos retired in 2003 at age 60. After five years at home, he realised that he wanted to do more in his golden years. He applied to be an auxiliary guide at the gallery as he had helped to set it up before his retirement.

“I cannot sit still. This is my hobby,” he says of his volunteer work.

Appealing to visitors

These days, WO(V) Yunnos is usually conducting tours for VIP groups, full-time national servicemen (NSFs) and walk-in visitors, including students and tourists.

He tailors his talks to the different groups, focusing on discipline for the NSFs and answering other visitors’ many questions about fires. He often gets asked how many fires there are in Singapore in a day and what type of fires are there.

WO(V) Yunnos helps to maintain the displays, including old photographs and firefighting paraphernalia, at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.
WO(V) Yunnos helps to maintain the displays, including old photographs and firefighting paraphernalia, at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.

Clad in a black CDAU volunteer polo shirt and pants, Mr Yunnos leads visitors through the two-storey gallery, sharing about the origins of the Singapore Civil Defence Force and its development, explaining the features of the two vintage fire trucks and hoses on display.

Having spent 41 years in the service, from an active fireman to managing operations from the 995 Operations Call Centre, his wealth of experience is incomparable. What makes his tour more authentic is that on top of his long career in firefighting, he saw the Central Fire Station transform as that’s where he grew up.

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I cannot sit still. This is my hobby.

A family of firefighters

You can say that firefighting is in WO(V) Yunnos’ blood: his father, older brother and two younger brothers were all firefighters. WO(V) Yunnos was born in Geylang Fire Station – his father was based there – before moving to the Central Fire Station in 1950. In the past, firefighters lived in the fire stations for ease of communication and quick mobilisation.

WO(V) Yunnos grew up surrounded by firefighters. His father told him to join the force, and he ended up as the one who stayed on the longest – even after his two younger brothers had left.

An old photo of WO(V) Yunnos as a Singapore Fire Brigade watch room operator in 1963 stands next to a more recent photo of him at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.
An old photo of WO(V) Yunnos as a Singapore Fire Brigade watch room operator in 1963 stands next to a more recent photo of him at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.

As a child, he watched the firemen do their drills twice a day and learned to identify their equipment. “When we were children, we had no space in the station for games and could play only after 5pm,” Mr Yunnos recalls. He also witnessed the fire brigade leave the Central Fire Station for the Maria Hertogh riots.

His days spent watching the firemen helped when it came to his own training to become a firefighter. He completed his training in just two months, much faster than other recruits.

A storied career

During his active days in the then Singapore Fire Brigade, WO(V) Yunnos was involved in events that turned out to be momentous in Singapore’s history: the 1972 fire at Robinsons department store in Raffles Place, and the collapse of Hotel New World in 1981 – he was then on duty in the 995 Operations Call Centre and had to dispatch officers.

“My worst fire was at Pulau Bukom in 1981. It was my first time attending to such a big fire and it was even more dangerous as it was an oil refinery,” he says, adding that he enjoyed his years in the call centre as he learnt a lot in his nine years there. “I had to learn how to piece together different messages from officers on the ground before deciding on the next course of action.

“All in all, it was 41 years of good service.”

Bringing the past into the present

As he takes visitors through the exhibits, WO(V) Yunnos explains how the equipment in the old fire engine, made from heavy solid brass, was labour-intensive – for example, one firefighter had to hold the nozzle while another held the hose to fight fires.

Older versions of the fire engine lacked shelter. The firefighters had to stand on the sides of the vehicle, until a newer one with a driver’s cabin to transport them inside, was built.

Visitors to the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery can climb into the driver’s cabin of the Dennis F12 fire engine.
Visitors to the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery can climb into the driver’s cabin of the Dennis F12 fire engine.

In the gallery, there is also a glass case full of paraphernalia such as old photographs, trophies, pins, awards and documents. Visitors may recognise that the photo portrait of a firefighter displayed looks remarkably like their guide.

WO(V) Yunnos says he doesn’t tell visitors that the person in the picture is him unless they ask. And when they do, he likes to joke and say that the man is his twin.

The affable man says his main aim is to have “satisfied and happy visitors”. His passion, it seems, is something that will never be extinguished.

Find WO(V) Yunnos at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery, 62 Hill Street, from Tuesdays to Thursdays. This is the first in a series of stories celebrating 150 years of civil defence volunteerism.

  • POSTED ON
    Jan 7, 2019
  • TEXT BY
    Audrey Ng
  • PHOTOS BY
    catspace
  • ART DIRECTION BY
    Yip Siew Fei
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