The past few months have been tough. Entire economic sectors have been facing dire circumstances as the toll of an extended circuit breaker continues to do its damage. Unemployment has climbed steadily this year, with 100,000 individuals expected to lose their jobs, leaving many in a state of financial insecurity. While a Covid-19 induced economic downturn may be the most pressing threat to Singapore right now, it is certainly not the only one.
Being a small island-state, Singapore is acutely vulnerable to war, terrorism, chemical and biological warfare. Without a hinterland to run off to, residents of this populated city would become sitting ducks if there aren’t plans in place for evacuation and shelter.
Believe it or not, MRT stations play a critical role in these plans.
MRT Stations are civil defence shelters. Head there.
While the civil defence bomb shelters built in HDBs, schools and community centres might be more visible and obvious, MRT stations too act as large-scale regional shelters during times of calamity.
To date, 49 MRT stations have been built to double up as a civil defence shelter. This initiative was started in 1983, where 9 underground MRT stations on the North-South and East-West Lines were refurbished to meet such requirements.
Each of the 49 MRT stations can hold a substantial number of people when activated as a civil defence shelter. For instance, Bishan MRT can accommodate 4,000 people when in operation, while Woodlands MRT—the latest addition to the list of civil defence shelters—can hold up to 9,000 people. Some stations even have the capacity to fit a staggering 19,000 people.
In the coming years, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has announced that more MRT stations built along the new Thompson-East Coast Line will serve as civil defence shelters as well.
When should you head to designated MRT civil defence shelter?
You should do so immediately when the Public Warning System (PWS) is activated to produce an “Alarm” signal. This signal is sounded when an air raid or shelling is imminent, which can endanger lives and property.
Note that your closest MRT station might not be the closest civil defence shelter. It might be a community centre or even a school. OneMap, shows a list of these shelters and their proximity to you.
How will MRT civil defence shelters keep you safe?
MRT civil defence shelters are equipped with facilities that ensure a safe and comfortable living environment during an emergency.
Firstly, its surrounding walls, floors, and roof slabs are hardened with reinforced concrete. This allows the MRT shelter to withstand high pressure blasts and fragmentation effects that are caused by the explosion of bombs. Furthermore, all protective blast doors in the MRT shelter are built from sturdy materials of either steel or concrete. Collectively, this design reduces the amount of structural damage to the shelter. It prevents debris from flying and glass from shattering during bomb explosions, which will significantly reduce the number of casualties during such events.
Secondly, these shelters are designed with decontamination facilities, which can be used to facilitate decontamination procedures in the event of a chemical attack. It is important to acknowledge that attacks on Singapore can be diverse in nature, and the country has to be prepared for all scenarios. In this case, individuals will be checked and treated for any chemical exposure—typically in the form of a decontamination shower, a fresh change of clothes, and air flushing—before being allowed into the main shelter areas. This is to maintain the general welfare of those residing in the shelter, to ensure that no one is exposed to a potentially dangerous chemical contaminant.
Above and beyond these safety measures, facilities that cater to the most basic needs of those within the shelter are well thought out for.
To begin with, flexible ventilation ducts are in place to sustain the movement of fresh air within the shelter. They are connected to the station’s ventilation system, which provides a reliable and steady source of fresh air. This creates a breathable and liveable environment whilst underground.
Dry toilet systems are also set up in the middle of the platform for general use. It operates without the need for a constant source of water for flushing purposes. This helps to conserve limited water resources in emergency situations.
Water distribution systems are assembled to provide a much-needed water supply to residents. This is especially critical since those residing in the MRT shelter may have to stay put for a prolonged period, depending on the duration of the attack.
Have MRT civil defence shelters been activated and used before?
No, they have not. Thankfully.
However, this does not mean that things will always stay this way. Therefore, yearly exercises are conducted to train operationally ready national servicemen from the SCDF’s Public Shelter and Resilience Unit (PSRU) to “prepare, convert and manage these public shelters for the protection of the population” during times of emergency.
Increasingly, the SCDF has also been organising exhibitions to showcase its MRT civil defence shelters. This is to increase awareness among the public of its existence and purpose, through guides tours.
Are our MRT civil defence shelters 100% safe?
In 2012, Harish Pillay, who did his reservist duties in the SCDF as a company commander of the Newton MRT civil defence station expressed his concerns in a blog post. According to him, “in all of the shelter exercises (he) was involved (in), (they) never closed the doors on the tracks because the doors were misaligned and if (they) forced it to close, (they) might not be able to open it and trains cannot resume service after our exercise”. He added that he was told “there is no clear agreement between SMRT, LTA and the SCDF as to who will bear the costs of doing repairs to align the doors”. Indeed, this raises questions about the lapses in collaboration between the multiple stakeholders when it comes to the upkeep of such facilities. When push comes to shove during emergency situations, the inability to secure the MRT civil defence shelter may cause serious consequences. However, Mr Pillay acknowledged that his last reservist session occurred in 2005, and as such, it is likely that such an issue has been rectified.
Although no one knows for certain if, and when, Singapore may need to activate MRT civil defence shelter, their maintenance and the training of the relevant personnel must be taken seriously. At the end of the day, the true test of its effectiveness may only be realised when a real emergency occurs.