By his own account, being parachuted from the army to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) meant dealing with a very different set of priorities.
"I was going from a soldier learning how to fight enemies to the SCDF learning how to save lives," said 68-year-old Mr James Tan, who in 1992 was appointed SCDF commissioner after serving as a senior exercise training planning officer in the Singapore Armed Forces.
To tackle the steep learning curve, he went to the front lines to witness first-hand the challenges SCDF personnel faced.
The SCDF had only 14 ambulances then, which were manned by overworked nurses, and around 700 firefighters who had to respond to tens of thousands of emergency calls.
The tools used were rudimentary and personnel functioned with operating procedures that dated back to World War I, he recounted.
Mr Tan, one of around 2,000 Home Team Pioneers being recognised this year in conjunction with Singapore's jubilee celebrations, spent the next 17 years overhauling the system.
Under his watch, the SCDF took on new technology such as using "water mist" in fighting small residential and vehicle fires, smothering flames with steam formed from the droplets in the heat.
Mr Tan helped create training facilities and programmes that have made the SCDF a sought-after partner for rescue training by other countries today.