Exclusive: Singapore to use biometrics for emergency services

By Chia Jie Lin

The home affairs ministry is also trialling emergency drones to get defibrillators straight to the scene of heart attacks.

Image: Singapore Civil Defence Force

Singapore will use fingerprint scanning for medical first responders, and is trialling emergency drones to get defibrillators straight to the scene, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have said.

“There is a clear case for the use of biometrics for emergency responders. Biometrics will allow EMS patients to be identified immediately so that the ambulance crew can obtain their relevant health information from the Ministry of Health’s National Electronic Health Record without delay,” SCDF’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Shalini Arulanandam told GovInsider. Paramedics will be able to identify patients by scanning their fingerprints with the project’s implementation from 2020 onwards, she added.


The biometrics system will be linked to the national electronic healthcare records, allowing paramedics to access the medical history of patients and provide appropriate and timely medical care. “Medical information such as the patient’s drug allergies and pre-existing medical conditions are crucial, so that the correct medicine can be administered quickly,” Dr Shalini noted.

Another advantage of the system, Dr Shalini added, is in allowing hospitals to make the “necessary and relevant preparations ahead of the patient’s arrival”.
The system will help paramedics treat unconscious or unresponsive patients without identification on them. “The lack of identification can pose some hindrance to the SCDF emergency responders when they attend to such patients,” Dr Shalini remarked. In 2017, approximately 8% of all EMS patients - 14,000 people - were without identification, a number which the SCDF hopes to reduce.

“Over the next year, SCDF will work on acquiring and operationalising the mobile identification systems, such as fingerprint scanners, in our ambulances," she noted.

But using fingerprints for identification “has its challenges”, she noted. “Some patients, especially the elderly, may have calluses, cracked or scarred skin. This can compromise the fingerprint quality,” Dr Shalini said. SCDF will “explore the use of other biometric identification techniques, such as iris scanning, to complement fingerprint identification,” she added.

Singapore is identifying other potential emergency services where biometrics can save more lives. “The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is reviewing and exploring the potential use of mobile biometric identification for other Home Team emergency services,” Dr Shalini said.

Data is the future

Access to shared patient records is crucial for emergency and public safety officials, said Ng Yih Yng, Chief Medical Officer of MHA, at the Innovation Labs World global summit. “What lies ahead for us is really the idea of information being shared as a shared consciousness between all the different providers, whether you're from MHA, MOH, or the hospitals,” he noted.

In the future, wearables will be essential in collecting health data from individuals. “The future will really include things like having personal wearables where patients have heart rate data,” he said. For instance, devices like the Apple Watch already collect electrocardiogram and blood pressure data from its owners, he noted, but there are “a lot more information which you can use to incorporate into a patient's treatment”.

Drones and AEDs

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs is exploring whether drones with defibrillators (AEDs) can arrive at the scene of cardiac arrests to support crucial first aid, according to Ng. “We're already doing some experiments with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore,” Ng remarked. “We're just sort of exploring the idea to see whether we can make this happen.”

If successful, emergency drones could be summoned on SCDF's emergency care app, myResponder, which alerts trained first-aiders to nearby patients suffering from heart attacks. “It's really a very simple extension of the idea where you could actually put a drone with an AED and using the app, you could summon the drone,” Ng shared.

Beyond cardiac arrests, the app also alerts users to instances of fires within a 400m vicinity, so they can help put out these fires. “The app has advanced to do other things,” Ng noted. “We've also used them to get people who are fire-trained to actually fight incipient fires,” he added.

In medical emergencies, every single minute counts. And Singapore wants to use biometrics and drones to cut errors and save more lives.