•Govt should properly fund Fire Service —Chairman, Conference of Directors of Fire Service in Nigeria
•Fire services are poorly funded—Operators
•Young graduates should be recruited into the service
•No Insurance cover for firemen
By Anayo Okoli, Dennis Agbo, Ugochukwu Alaribe, Chimaobi Nwaiwu & Chinonso Alozie
The harmattan season is fast approaching when fire incidents are frequently witnessed. In the past, private and public places like houses, markets and other institutions were engulfed by fire. It is a natural incident that could happen unannounced.
How prepared are the governments of the South-East states in the event of any fire incident? It is observed that of all the five states in the region, only Enugu State gives appreciable attention to fire service. In other states, little or no attention is given to fire service, an action that portends danger.
According to the the Chairman, Conference of Directors of Fire Services in Nigeria, Mr. Victor Gbaruko, most states in Nigeria lack modern fire-fighting equipment. He stressed the need for the federal and state governments to properly fund the fire service under them to boost the capacity of the service to save lives and property.
Gbaruko, who is the Abia State Director of Fire Service, described fire-fighting as a cost intensive business.
He explained that the greatest problem affecting fire service in the country is the lack of maintenance culture and the nonchalant attitude to the upgrade of fire-fighting facilities.
According to him, the focus of the Conference of Directors of State Fire Service in Nigeria is no longer fire-fighting but mitigation of fire outbreaks, stressing that the group has been brainstorming on the ways to improve the fire- fighting capacity of the fire service in the country.
Gbaruko, however, lamented that most people who ought to fund fire service in Nigeria tend to view fire service from the prism of revenue generation, insisting that Nigerians have a lukewarm attitude to fire-fighting.
In his words: “Some states have a good number of modern fire-fighting equipment. I was in Lagos State, they have a good number of fire trucks, but there are some states where they don’t have any. Others have, but they are not properly maintained. If you have five or six vehicles in a state and out of these, four are not maintained, it means you are not prepared for fire-fighting. The greatest problem we have in all the states is the maintenance of equipment. Our maintenance culture is poor. State-of-the-art fire equipment requires lots of money to maintain.
“And the people providing the funds are looking at it from the point of revenue generation. They are emphasizing on revenue generation. They say the fire service isn’t generating any revenue. If we maintain the fire engines, how much will it generate for the state to help develop other areas?
“But I have made some reports that the money the fire service makes is higher than the ones made by even revenue-generating agencies of government.
“Consider the amount of lives and property we save, you can’t quantify it in terms of money. What people look at is that particular property burnt down, but they forget those surrounding it and lives saved.
“Directors of Fire Service in Nigeria have been exchanging ideas on how we can improve the fire-fighting capacity in the country. Generally, there is this lukewarm attitude of Nigerians to fire outbreaks.
“People don’t take fire serious until there is an outbreak and it pains most of us because lives and property are involved.
“We are looking at the fire disasters and the conditions. Climate change has affected everything. We are looking at what we can do to forestall occurrences. How do we look at it so that we avoid situations that could cause a spark?
“The emphasis is no longer on fire-fighting but fire mitigation. How do we prevent fire outbreak because if fire occurs, it must destroy something?
“As fire professionals, we are always ready to fight fire. I disagree with people who say that the fire service approach is an unprepared approach. The phrase, ‘fire brigade approach,’ is a Nigerian phrase, but in international language, it is not true. Go to America, Europe and some parts of Africa, you will discover that the fire man has everything on ground; that is fire preparedness.
“We are also emphasizing on having fire service stations in all the towns because the nearer you are to fire service point, the better for a fire man to meet up with the fire at a good time and save lives. Except Abuja and some areas in Lagos, there are no longer fire hydrants in the states. We have fire hydrants in Umuahia, but they are all blocked. If you have a hydrant in a town and a nearby market is burning, you can easily fix your hose into the fire engine and start fighting.
“Many people don’t even have the phone lines of the fire service and we don’t have toll-free numbers that you can call. It is only the Federal Fire Service that has the toll-free line, and then they will alert the states.”
On ways to revamp the fire service, Gbaruko urged the government to increase its budget for fire service as well as prioritize the welfare of fire men in the country.
“Government should make funds available to the Fire Service to maintain their fire engines and buy new ones; recruit good number of able-bodied fire men including graduates. During fire outbreaks, you see only four firemen attending to a fire, it is very dangerous.
“The welfare of firemen is nothing to write home about. Except the Federal Fire Service, no fireman is being well taken care of by the states. There is no insurance for fire service personnel. The only difference you can see is in Lagos and Niger where they operate a paramilitary salary structure.
“But we don’t need to continue to wait for the government. It is laudable that private companies are now coming up with fire service departments. In Lagos and Abuja, lots of companies have fire engines. When there is fire outbreak, Julius Berger will come to assist the state and Federal Fire Service to fight fire. In Abia State, Valumbra Company in Aba has set up a fire service unit. We taught them how to operate the fire engine, fire prevention and fighting. Other companies have followed suit.”
In Imo State, the Director of Fire Service, Japhet Okereafor is lamenting that the state fire service stations lacked the manpower to tackle any fire outbreak in the state.
Okereafor, therefore, pleaded that the state government should embark on recruitment exercises to employ more hands in the fire stations in the state.
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“What we need now is manpower. I would not fail to tell you the truth. I don’t have sufficient manpower. I don’t have more than seven personnel left in my headquarters. The reason is that about seven of them will be retiring very soon.
“However, I am doing everything humanly possible to ensure that the fire engines entrusted in my care, are working effectively and serviceable but we are short on manpower.
“I am asking for recruitment of more staff. I will be happy if the state government will hear my cry and begin recruitment of those to work in fire service stations. We have about 37 personnel in the whole fire service stations in the state and some people are retiring,” he said.
In Enugu State, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi has done a lot to improve the service and ensure safety of the people. Particularly, the fire service in the state has taken measures ahead of the harmattan season.
The Ugwuanyi administration has emphasized the need for residents of the state to adhere strictly to safety measures that will help in checkmating the outbreak of fire as the dry season approaches.
To stress the importance of this, the government has conducted workshops in the Council areas to educate the people on fire-fighting strategies.
The fire safety training workshop were meant mainly for officials of Neighbourhood Watch groups, Forest Guard, Presidents-General of Town Unions and other relevant stakeholders in Enugu South Local Government Area.
According to the state’s Chief Fire Officer, Engr. Okwudiri Ohaa, the aim was to teach the people in the rural areas the technique to be able to control fire outbreaks and save lives and property.
Addressing one of the training sessions, Engr. Ohaa noted that the workshop was timely, insisting that the importance of the exercise to safety of lives and property in the state, could not be overemphasized especially during the dry and harmattan seasons which are fast approaching.
According to him: “The issue of fire can never be over emphasized owing to the fact that fire is one of the essential needs of man without which life itself will be difficult. But irrespective of the numerous advantages of fire, it has got its bad sides. Fire could be seen as death, fire is destruction, fire is disaster and therefore should not be played with.
“That is why it requires a trained expert to control fire.
“For this reason, we stand with Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State and the Chairman of Enugu South Local Government Area, Hon. Monday Eneh, together with the good people of Enugu South to say NO to fire outbreaks in the council area.”
The Chief Fire Officer therefore applauded the governor for his administration’s unprecedented transformation of the state’s fire service, which he said was hitherto in deplorable condition for decades.
“Our unreserved gratitude goes to the ever conscious and kind-hearted Governor of Enugu State, Gov. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi who saw the deplorable condition of Enugu State Fire Service, fought and conquered by lifting us from 56 years of stagnation with only three fire stations to eight fire stations and four fire units making, it eleven.
“These additional five new ultra-modern fire stations the administration of Gov. Ugwuanyi constructed, are scattered across the width and breadth of the state.
“He went further to boost our fire-fighting equipment with five brand new mini fire engines and five Rapid Response Vehicles among others.
“What Gov. Ugwuanyi has done in the fire sector islaudable because in the past, what we experienced during fire outbreaks was that the fire-fighting vehicles broke down, no water, or we experience gridlock.
“But today, the story has changed. Immediately you call the fire service officials, within five minutes, they are there, depending on the location. Many fire stations have been constructed and put to effective use. The rate of fire disaster has been minimized, every right thinking person is now happy.
“We equally thank our governor for appointing Engr. Okwudiri Ohaa to pilot the affairs of the state’s fire sector. Engr. Ohaa is no doubt a hard working man,” some officials at the various trainings noted.
With the equipment and good training, Enugu State Fire Service said they are ready to combat fire outbreaks any time, insisting that they are well equipped and prepared to combat any fire outbreak in the state, including high-hazard flammable, non-flammable and hydrocarbon fire.
Accoding to the state Chief Fire Officer, Engr. Okwudiri Ohaa, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had further approved the purchase of Film-Forming Fluoro-Protein Foam (FFFP), professionally used in combating all types of fire as harmattan season approaches.
Ohaa noted that the training workshops in the council areas were to keep the participants abreast of new methods of fire- fighting.
He explained that the training sessions which were organised in collaboration with the 17 council chairmen was aimed at controlling, preventing and suppressing fire incidents as well as mitigating the effects of fire outbreaks in the state.
The Chief Fire Officer disclosed that the agency also adopted the approach of engagement of stakeholders such as the traditional rulers, presidents- general, market leaders, neighbourhood watch groups, forest guards, religious and youth groups to wholesomely create a safer and more secure living environment.
Ohaa explained that the FFFP is a highly effective foam used for fighting high-hazard flammable and non-flammable fire, disclosing that approval has been made for the refurbishment of six fire trucks and procurement of motor spare parts and working tools to assist the state fire service.
In Anambra State, known for hosting many big markets, none of the markets in Onitsha and Nnewi has functional fire service equipment and the traders are lamenting the danger the situation posses for them.
According to the last elected Chairman of Onitsha Markets Amalgamated Traders Association, OMATA, Mr. Nnamdi Umobuagh, the last functional fire service in the popular market was during his time, from 2009 to 2011, and it was possible for the market then to have functioning fire service because he was personally funding them.
“I bought tyres and batteries for the two fire- fighting vehicles that Mr. Peter Obi’s government donated to us; we discovered that tyres and vehicle batteries were always the problem fire fighters complained about and I made sure they never lacked these two items.
“You know that during the Obi administration, things were done with due process, market leaders were elected and not appointed, but these days, they are appointed and nobody cares and nobody has interest again in the welfare of the markets so it was in my administration that the market had the last functional fire service.
SEV investigation also revealed that it is same situation in all the major markets in Onitsha and Nnewi. From Ochanja Central Market, to Bridge Head Market, Relief Market Onitsha, to Electronics International Market, there is no functional fire service.
The Secretary of Electronics International Market, Comrade Damian Ogudike said the market does not have any functional fire service station and equipment but the market leadership had procured four big fire extinguishers which he is not sure whether they have expired or not.
He lamented that government does not show any interest in fighting fire in the markets, regretting that it is the same markets that generate the bulk of revenues they use to run their governments.
Further investigation in the other major markets in Nnewi showed that the biggest market in Nnewi, Nkwo Nnewi Market, does not have a functional fire service station.
According to the traders, two immovable fire-fighting vehicles are always seen in the market like in other major markets in the state, but none functions.
“All the state government cares about is collecting levies and all manner of revenues from the traders but do not care about protecting the source of their revenues in case of fire outbreak,” a trader lamented.
According to information available to SEV, Nnewi fire station which was the only fire service in Anambra and had help from the Asaba Fire Service Station on several occasions, particularly, in Onitsha, has been allowed to be grounded in the last four years.