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Firefighting: A national disgrace

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FireALMOST 10 years ago, I was an undergraduate of the University of Ilorin when a fire incident occurred very close to my off-campus residence. The fire started from a spark in public power supply to one of the provision shops at a shopping complex.

The fire which started about 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning saw residents, some of the shop owners and, of course, sympathisers troop out in large numbers, making frantic efforts to put off the fire to prevent it from doing much damage. All efforts came to naught as soon as fire spread to an electricity generator kept inside the shop.

We all stood, looking frustrated and confused as we watched the fire rage from one shop to the other.

The fact that most of the shop owners kept their electricity generators inside their shops didn’t help matters.

Although the firefighting agency was only a few kilometers away from the scene of the fire they could not render any help.

The excuse they gave when they were called was that they didn’t have water in their “yard”, that is on their premises, so they had to go out in search of water.

It took the firefighters about five hours before they finally came to the scene by which time the damage had been done. Most parts of the shopping complex was touched, goods and properties worth millions of naira had been razed by the inferno.

It took a combine effort of the law enforcement agents and some citizens to save men of the firefighting agency from the attack of the angry mob who were anything but impressed about their lackadaisical and unbecoming attitude.

Different parts of this country and even the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) had had similar and an unfortunate stories to tell about the firefighting agencies in our country.

Market women and traders have lost goods worth billions of naira across this country; families have lost their loved ones and many Nigerians have lost valuable properties to the lukewarmness, misconduct and inefficiency of the firefighting agencies in Nigeria.

The earliest known firefighting agency was formed in ancient Rome by Ignatus Rufus, who used slaves to provide free fire service, but by 24 BC, the emperor Augustus had already established a public fire department composed of about 600 slaves distributed among seven fire stations across Rome.

The city of Boston established the first public firefighting department in America in 1679 staffed with highly trained and professional firefighters.

However, in 1906, the very first motorised fire department was organised in Springfield after Knox Automobile of Springfield produced the first modern fire engine a year earlier. The Nigeria Federal Fire Service was established through a legislation of the Fire Services Act of 1981.

The fire services in Nigeria are managed at local authority level with the Department of Environment and local government playing an advisory, legislative and policy making role.

The mission of the Federal Fire Service is: To reduce the loss of lives and properties due to fire outbreak to the barest minimum. Their vision is to ensure a fire safe Nigeria where all Nigerians and their properties are fire protected through prompt response to fire calls.

Their mandate is to build a fire force that Nigeria and Nigerians would be proud of. Contrary to this mandate, Nigerians can be said to be anything but proud of the firefighting agency.

Whenever there is fire, apart from the fact that one has the shabby services of the GSM networks to contend with, when such calls eventually go through, the response is either that they do not have water or that they do not have enough fuel for their vehicles.

Sometimes their vehicles are down from one mechanical fault or the other.

Although the primary responsibility of government is the security of lives and property, one hardly sees any tangible efforts of the government in safeguarding the lives and properties of Nigerians through a deliberate policy investment in the Nigerian fire service. Such a policy would be aimed at preventing and reducing frequency of fire outbreaks nationwide.

During the last political campaigns, none of the candidates aspiring for political office, from the President down to the state Houses of Assembly made mention of how he\she intended to safeguard the lives and properties from fire. This shows the level of neglect that fire safety has suffered.

Considering the huge amount of money and precious lives which have been lost to fire outbreaks nationwide, there is an urgent need for governments at various levels to wake up from their slumber and give the matter of firefighting the ample priority it deserves.

The current decentralisation of the fire service which enables the Federal Government, states and town councils to manage and operate firefighting agencies has done more harm than good.

Hence, there is need for the Federal Fire Service to take full charge of firefighting in the country. To reduce the challenge of proximity, the Federal Fire Service should be established in each of the 774 local government councils and in state capitals in Nigeria.

Apart from recruiting more staff and retraining the existing ones, modern and state of the art facilities and firefighting equipment should be procured.

Like is the case in other parts of the world where issues of fire safety is taken seriously, there should be in place in this country a firefighter club which should be a citizen volunteer organisation like the Red Cross and Rotary clubs in which able-bodied men and women are encouraged to be members.

They would be trained from time to time on the basics of fire safety and firefighting. This would go a long way to enhance the job of firefighting.

In many countries such as the United State of America, Canada and Japan, the fire department is also often responsible for emergency medical services.

Many firefighters are cross-trained as medical “first responders” to medical emergencies, providing assessment and treatment until an ambulance arrives. Many firefighters also operate ambulance services.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in having this kind of arrangement in Nigeria as it would enhance the capacity of our firemen and boost their sense of responsibility and service to humanity.

As a matter of national emergency, massive fire safety education should be carried out nationwide through the use of local radio and television channels in local languages such that all Nigerians can easily understand and comprehend what is involved.

Fire safety education should be integrated into the National education curricular from the primary to secondary school level to allow young Nigerians to be well informed on fire safety and firefighting.

There should be a deliberate legislation making it mandatory for all markets, shopping malls and industrial establishments to have firefighting department with anyone or establishment who acts contrary getting sanctioned, fined or prosecuted.

I was inside the car with some colleagues on our way to attend a seminar within the premises of the University of Ilorin a couple of months ago and suddenly a vehicle about a kilometer ahead of us caught fire.

Within few minutes about 20 vehicles had pulled up to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

Unfortunately, none of the 20 vehicles that had parked had a fire extinguisher to help out. We all stood and watched the car burn.

Beyond encouraging and enforcing vehicle owners to get their vehicles insured with registered insurance companies, the FRSC needs to up their game on the enforcement of fire extinguishers by all categories of vehicles in order to enhance fire safety. • Obaro wrote from Ilorin. oseniobaro@yahoo.com , 08065396694.


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