…Why fire service may need arms
By Omeiza Ajayi
For Nigeria’s Federal Fire Service FFS, the saying is through that “when everyone else is running out, the firefighters are running in”.
This is often the case when there is a fire incident, but in spite of the sacrifices, including losing lives and limbs that firemen and women have often made, the Nigerian society has not really paid adequate attention to the Federal Fire Service. Perhaps, this is why apart from scores of lives that were lost, over N5 trillion was also lost to inferno between 2013 and 2018. This is according to official statistics given by the Service during the 2018 Fire Fighters Day in Abuja. Of course, the losses also preclude those that were not reported to the Service.
The Federal Fire Service was established by the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 with a mandate to extinguish, control and prevent fire, carry out search and rescue operations, save lives, property and environment, including carrying out humanitarian services.
There is no gainsaying the fact that fire incidents contributed to the current wave of insecurity as many of those affected were not only displaced, but lost their sources of employment and income. By implication, fire safety is a security issue, but unfortunately in many states of the federation where the Federal Fire Service exists, the organization is not part of the State Security Council.
But, how did Nigeria get here? For the past 30 years, the Service existed without appropriate fire fighting equipment at the federal level. While the situation at the federal was before now very precarious, the state fire services literally existed only in the imagination of their state governors.
In the past one month, there have been at least 25 serious fire incidents but none gripped the nation like that of Wednesday, October 16 inferno caused by a fuel tanker at Upper Iweka and Ochanja Market, Onitsha. Within a space of 48 hours, another petrol tanker fire occurred at Omagba Phase 2, while there were also incidents (though the tankers didn’t go up in flames) at Nnewi, Nteje and Agulu respectively within the same state. All these aside from the other incidents recorded across the country within the period. Just this week, eight people were roasted to death in a tanker explosion at the Felele area of Lokoja, the Kogi state capital.
In 2017, there was a fire outbreak in Anambra state but the federal firefighters from Asaba station in Delta state were able to contain the fire in spite of having to travel over a considerable distance from Asaba to Onitsha.
However, on October 16, the situation was different for traders at the Ochanja Market in Onitsha due to lack of understanding by some motorists that an emergency vehicle always has the “right of way”. In fact, some motorists were competing for space (dragging road as we say in the local parlance) with the fire fighting truck/personnel from Asaba.
Just some distance to the scene, the firemen were pelted with stones. Hear the Controller General of the Federal Fire Service, CGF Ibrahim Alhaji Liman; “The Federal Fire Service received a call about the fire outbreak at about 2pm. The control room at the headquarters in Abuja immediately turned out the nearest Federal Fire Service Station at Asaba, Delta State to attend to the fire. Our men immediately headed to the scene but it was not possible to contend with the heavy traffic at the head bridge and behaviour of angry mob who pelted stones at them. Thus, it was not possible for the firefighters to get to the Scene and fight the fire in such a hostile environment”.
In the 2017 incident, armed personnel had already secured the radius of the inferno and so it was easier moving in fire service trucks. But this is not often the case. Only about two weeks ago, a fuel tanker collided with a bus and fell while trying to make a turn just after the FCT College of Education in Zuba, Abuja. It took nearly 30 minutes for the firemen to get to the scene from the College’s gate, a distance of about 500 metres, only because the road was blocked by motorists who refused to give way to the firefighting truck and water tender. It took the arrival of few civil defence operatives and other security personnel to pave way for the firefighters.
In Nigeria, it looks as though it was only by accident that some fire stations were sited near police stations.
Some countries are in the process of creating an armed squad in their fire services, while there are those who already allow their firefighters to carry some light weapons. Should Nigeria follow suit? Should our firefighters undergo arms training and carry arms like the Paris Fire Brigade?
In 2017, the Anambra state Government had procured three modern fire fighting trucks, bringing the total number of trucks in the state to 15.
They were to be deployed in Onitsha, Nnewi and Awka, three major towns in the state.
What happened to the trucks in the state? What happened to the trucks deployed in Onitsha that they had to wait for the Federal Fire Service personnel all the way from Asaba, Delta state? What is the state of the Anambra state Fire Service?
The truth is that apart from Lagos and to an arguable extent, the Federal Capital Territory FCT Fire Service, most state fire services are heart-breakers and would always be missing in action when their services are needed most.
Interestingly, the FFS is working towards strengthening the State Fire Services for effectiveness and efficiency and to help reduce response time, because 90 percent of fire incidences occur in the states.
In March 2019 when Dr Liman took over as Controller General Fire only two training schools in Lagos and Abuja were available to train Firemen, a development which forced him reach out to the Nigerian Police and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps NSCDC and got three more training schools one from the Nigerian Police and two from the NSCDC. This arrangement which has helped in training over 2,000 newly-recruited personnel is a pointer to the fact that Nigeria needs to do more to strengthen the Service to stand on its feet fully.
The good news however is that approval has been given for the establishment of additional five fire service training schools which will soon take off. They are located in Maiduguri, Calabar, Ilorin, Katsina, and Umuahia. These Training Schools will provide training for not just the Federal Fire Service personnel but the State Fire Services and other Fire Services within and outside the country.
Before the appointment of the current CGF, the Federal Fire Service had its presence in only Abuja and Lagos and the Six Geo-political zones; we have Zone A comprising of Benue, Nasarawa & Plateau with headquarters in Makurdi, Zone B comprising of Katsina, Jigawa & Kaduna with Headquarters in Kano; Zone C comprising Bauchi, Yobe & Borno with Headquarters in Bauchi; Zone D comprising Enugu, Ebonyi, & Anambra with Headquarters in Enugu; Zone E comprising Akwa-lbom, Rivers & Cross River with Headquarters in Uyo and; Zone F comprising Lagos, Ogun, & Oyo with Headquarters in Lagos.
However, between March and now. the Service has expanded its operational activities by establishing six additional Zonal Headquarters thus; Zone G -Niger, Kogi & Kwara, with headquarters in Minna; H -Sokoto, Zamfara & Kebbi with headquarters in Sokoto; I-Adamawa, Taraba & Gombe, with headquarters in Yola; J -Owerri & Abia, with headquarters in Owerri; K-Delta, Edo & Bayelsa, with headquarters in Asaba; L-Osun, Ondo & Ekiti with headquarters in Osogbo.
Disasters: FG to establish 5 Fire Training Schools, purchase 93 fire fighting trucks(Opens in a new browser tab)
Nigeria has some Air force officers working with the National Emergency Management Agency NEMA. These officers often help to fly the agency’s aircrafts during emergencies. Since personnel of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps NSCDC are also emergency responders, perhaps some of their armed personnel could be seconded to the Federal Fire Service.
The other option is to amend the Fire Safety Act to compel all states of the federation to adopt the fire safety code. A situation where a state fire service has less than 10 personnel for a population of over four million is abnormal.
When amended, the Fire Service Act should grant powers to the Federal Fire Service to compel state fire services to do the needful at all times.