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‘We want to recruit volunteer fighters to assist during fire outbreaks in communities’

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Dr. Ibrahim Alhaji Liman is Controller-General of Federal Fire Service. Photo/ANAMBRAUPDATE

Dr. Ibrahim Alhaji Liman is Controller-General of Federal Fire Service (FFS). He inherited a staff strength of 2,000, which has now grown to 6,000, with a presence in the 36 states. In this interview with TINA ABEKU, he spoke on plans to recruit community-based volunteer fighters, strategies to curb growing fire incidence, challenges facing the agency as well as the move to review the fire Act of 1963, now considered obsolete.

The Federal Fire Service (FFS) is, sometimes, considered a pariah agency. However, recently, noticeable changes took place. What is responsible for this?
WHAT you said is true and what we are witnessing today is political will. This political will is from the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, that’s, President Muhammadu Buhari. When he came on board in 2015, we had only three rickety fire trucks, two in Abuja and one in Lagos. By then, we were only present in Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna and Port Harcourt. When the president came on board, I was opportune to chat with him and I enumerated the problems of the fire service in Nigeria and the way forward. I think he took note of that, and fortunately for the service, we had a minister, who also had a military background, General Abdulrahman Dambazau. He didn’t waste time in visiting the service’s facilities in Abuja and Lagos, because the service falls under the Ministry of Interior, where he was the supervising minister.

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When the 2016 budget was prepared, what the Federal Fire Service never got before, a good amount, so to say, was allocated in the budget, and with that, we were able to buy 23 modern states of the art fire fighting trucks, 15 of which are dual-purpose water tankers of 10,000 litres capacity. It is a dual purpose in the sense that it can also be used to fight the fire directly and can be used as a backup to the fire truck because the fire truck has 6,000 litres of water capacity and 1,000 litres capacity of chemicals.

We were able to open six zonal offices and what we did was to use the six geopolitical zones as our zonal offices. After creating the zones, we posted our staff there and that year, the President also approved the recruitment of 660 staff, which now increased the staff strength, thus, enabling us to open these new stations.

In 2017, we had another budget increase and I must appreciate the Minister of Finance for the timely releases of funds because we were never starved of funds. This goodwill continued in 2018, 2019 and these are responsible for bringing about a lot of the changes people are seeing now.

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When all these started, I wasn’t the Controller-General (CG). It was during my predecessor, era, Joseph Garba Anebi’s era. I was then Assistant Controller-General (ACG), in charge of administration and supply, but one of the strategies we adopted was to buy fire trucks, so, with my experience, I advised the then CG that the best thing for us to do was to ensure that local contractors, who come to us, must introduce, at least, a foreign manufacturer as a partner and having introduced that person, we have to visit their factories to inspect and see whether they have the capacity to manufacture the fire truck or not, because, in Nigeria, we don’t have any manufacturer of fire trucks, nor assemblers, nor dealers. What we did was to have local content with foreign manufacturers to introduce the local content, then we were able to select some countries, which we visited which include India, China, Bulgaria, Austria, Dubai and Turkey among others.

We inspected some of these companies and were able to find few worthy to manufacture these fire trucks and we collected their paper through the local content, forwarded same to the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), which had given us a certificate of no objection for selective tender, so, that was one of the strategies we used.

The second strategy is to expand our scope of operation from three or four states to about eight states as I earlier enumerated. We existed in Kaduna and Port Harcourt with Lagos and Abuja.

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In 2017, when we had the approval to recruit, we recruited and when more money was released, we ordered additional fire trucks. So, when I came on board in 2019, the contract had already been awarded for 44 fire trucks, eight rapid intervention and two foam tenders, (another type of fire truck carrying foam concentrate instead of water to douse fire), but they were not delivered.

So, when I came on board and we had a new minister, the current minister Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, I now told him the plight of having these trucks already in my control but in the premises of foreign manufacturers but there is no money to pay the contractor so that they can deliver these trucks to us. Luckily, he understood it and he took it up to Mr. President and the intervention was approved and we were able to pay these contractors.

We took delivery of the first set of 20 out of these 44 and that also now gave us another opening for another strategy to break the six geopolitical zones now to 12 zones. So, instead of having six states lumped in as a zone, we now have three states as a zone. So we have now increased our zones from six to 12. The strategy here is to improve our response time during fire emergencies. Instead of travelling around six states, it is now three states.

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Another is to establish training schools. When I came on board in 2019, we had only two training schools, one in Sheda, Abuja, and one in Surulere, Lagos. But we discover that not only the staff of the federal fire service, but even the states firefighters, one of the major challenges they are facing is training and retraining, so, I recommended that we should have one Federal Fire Training School in each of the six geopolitical zones and the government understood and approved it.

In 2020, around January and February, that of the Northwest was flagged off in Kankiya, Katsina State. The strategy here is, we will bring the state firefighters together with the federal firefighters to train together so that they will now blend, operationally.

Then, the next training school was to be in the Southwest, in Ilesha, Osun State, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, it couldn’t take off but this year by the grace of God, it is going to take off.

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But what we did during the lockdown period is to train our instructors so that we have good instructors in these training schools so gradually, these training schools will be flagged off for each zone and they will run different courses not the same so that the man in Maiduguri can go to Calabar for training, the man in Calabar can go to Kankiya for training, the man in Lagos can go to Borno or Kankiya for training and so on. By this, we are now exposing fire personnel to different environments and different techniques of firefighting and fire prevention.

How viable is the agency’s move to partner with Innoson Motors to manufacture fire trucks?
You, we have to encourage our local manufacturers, Innoson Motors is into manufacturing of vehicles, even trucks, and the government is encouraging indigenous entrepreneurs. We have to key into that. Innoson invited us and we visited the factory, we inspected the facility and we saw that if he’s given the opportunity, he will do that for us.

Now, what we are looking at here is if we can have a local manufacturer, the money we are using to buy one fire truck from overseas can be used to buy two here and that is one advantage.

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The second advantage, the more we patronise him, the more he will expand his business and the more he will employ our youths, so, you see, we are looking at it from this angle and the process is still on because the fire truck is made up of three major components; the chassis, pump and the tank.

Now, he has to import all these components from different parts of the world and bring them to Nnewi where his plant is. The major issue here is coupling these components and we told him that when he is going to start, we are going to send our mechanical and electrical engineers to work with them for two to three weeks to see what they are doing before now certify the product for sale into Nigerian markets.

States fire services are autonomous and a lot of the fire accidents are recorded in the states and we still see the FFS is still taking responsibility for fighting these fire emergencies in the states, how then can the states governments be encouraged to take up their firefighting responsibility seriously?
Yes, the state fire services are not under federal control that is why anytime we are delivering trucks to states, I go there personally to meet with their Excellencies and let them know that what the federal is doing, they should also do the same at the state level. Before I meet the state governor, I will always meet with the state director of fire service and ask what are your challenges? I will look at the challenges and I will present the same to the state governor to address them because firefighting is purely a municipal matter.

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Our presence at the state level is to compliment the efforts of the state fire service but from all indications, many of them don’t have the capacity so we assist them to build their capacity in terms of human resources and infrastructure.

What challenge is the FFS currently facing?
Well, the challenges are numerous but I think both the Federal Government and the service itself are trying their best. One of the major challenges is the lack of adequate fire fighting equipment because there is a huge gap. If you look at Nigeria’s 774 council areas. We are only present in the 36 states while many states fire services are not doing so well. Some don’t even have fire trucks at the state headquarters let alone council areas. Where the states are performing, about 10 states that I know of, do not cover up to one-third of the number of the local governments in the states. It is a huge challenge because that means that we have to travel long distances to go and manage emergencies, it is a huge challenge. The response time will be very poor because now you are going to move from the state capital to a local government that you have to drive for like three to four hour, then what are you going to do there?

That is the challenge but if we have our presence in all the local governments, and beyond the local government to even districts, our response time will be very good. So it is a huge or big challenge. So, we need more fire stations, we need more fire fighting equipment, we need more personnel.

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Another challenge is our obsolete act. This act was enacted when Nigeria became a republic in 1963 and many sections are already obsolete to go with modern technology and time. So, we need to revisit it. Thank God it has gone through the first reading in the Federal House of Representatives and they have sent it to us to make our input and our legal department and the legal department of the federal ministry of the interior are working together to see how we can update this our fire service act.

Also, a fire policy is needed, because we don’t have any in the country. The council just approved and soon we will have a retreat. We have been working on it for the past year and during the retreat, we would look at it with other stakeholders and come up with a fire policy so that everybody will know his direction and what is expected to be done. The states will know their direction, the same with the Federal.

Another challenge is the source of water for use during fire emergencies. Now that we are in state capitals, we know the states that have fire hydrants that we can prime are not up to five — This means that we have to dig boreholes or we go to open water to prime, and it is a challenge. So, we want the states, through their water board, to provide some selected points with fire hydrants for us to be going to take water. If we have fire hydrants in all the places, even without fire trucks, we can connect our working tools and fight fire direct from fire hydrants because the fire hydrants should have that pressure that the fire truck can give to you, this is because the fire hydrant is always connected to water main.

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Fire hydrants are the pipes supplying the water that we can either directly connect to our standing pipes, screw together, put our delivery hose, then we can fight fire with it and we can also just connect it to our vehicles, the water will just be going in and out and we can use it for five to six hours to fight fire without going anywhere to refill our tanks. So, the lack of water hydrants is a big challenge.

We discovered that majority of the public do not understand the difficulty the fire service is facing in terms of response because their belief is that once there is fire, you should just appear. We are not spirits, that is why we encourage people to know the nearest fire station to where they reside. They should also know the fire station’s telephone number, without that, when we come, they start stoning our people. It is because of these incidences that we agreed during our last council conference in Jos that we are going to recruit volunteer firefighters and we are going to have a special fire marshal as well as fire police.

The fire volunteer will be trained as a firefighter and they will be community-based, so, they will enlighten their communities and before the firefighters arrive, these people will be seen doing something, either rescuing life or trying to control the fire not to escalate and they will now put a call across to the nearest fire station, which will now respond. So, these volunteers will be trained as firefighters and they will be given their identity (ID), cards.

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The special fire marshals, from what we have seen happening in other countries, are not applicants. They must be civil servants of not less than grade level 12. Just like we have in the Federal Road Safety Corps, these marshals will also be trained because we firefighters are not everywhere but fire marshals can be everywhere.

If the marshal enters a building a discover that fire safety standards were not adhered to, he or she has the right to question the management of that place and report immediately to the nearest fire station so that we can penalise them, or ask them to do the right thing or we give warning. This way, we have people within the community who are already giving us information and also people at the grassroots will now be more enlightened about the fire service and the issue of police depends on how this goes.

Some people say that firemen don’t carry arms, in some countries they carry arms especially fire investigators, therefore, it depends on the peculiar problem of individual countries. Here, yes we have the police we have civil defence and they have all been trying their best, but they are also overwhelmed with the security challenges that we are having, if we have our own to accompany our people always when there is an emergency because fire outbreak does not happen every day and if this other sister security come to our offices and sit every day without fire, they will become bored but if it is our men, they are firemen trained to carry arms so that when our trucks are moving to emergency ground, they there to protect our trucks and our personnel.

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Are the fire marshal going to be employees of the FFS?

No, they are also volunteers but of senior cadre but they are civil servants who are volunteering to do that and are living within the communities as well. They must be civil servants of level 12 or its equivalents as I have earlier said but for the volunteers, even primary school children of age can be volunteers and be taught the basics. We have primary schools and secondary schools that visit us and we put them through some of these rudiments of fire fighting.

What are the precautions and safety measures to take in the event of an outbreak?
You see, before you know the precaution to take, what are the causes of fire? We have three major causes of fire. Number one is a natural disaster such as earth tremor or earthquakes, the lavas from beneath the earth crust, that lava is very hot and can cause a fire. We also have the wildfire that is going on because of high temperatures in some countries.

The second cause of the fire is arson. Arson is willful of setting the fire; it means that somebody did it intentionally and there are so many things that lead to arson.

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The third cause of the fire is carelessness, and this is what we lay more emphasis on because most of the time people will say the cause of a fire is electrical and I will always ask why electrical surge? When you build your house, and you want to do wiring, get a qualified electrician, don’t say you are trying to or manage your money by getting someone who is not a professional. The unprofessional will either buy substandard cables for you or do a wrong connection and in the end, there will be problems so get a good electrician who is a professional to do wirings for you.

Also, do not overload your electrical sockets to avoid fire accidents. It is just like a human being who, for example, can comfortably take a bag of rice, is now forced to carry two or three bags, you will collapse. If a socket can only accommodate one fridge or one electronic, then, don’t add another one, instead, provide another socket.

When your gadgets are not in use and you want to go out of the house, switch them off. Not only switching them off, disconnect them as a safety precaution.

Another one is the issue of stocking petrol or diesel in the house and what many people don’t know is that when petrol and diesel settle down, they emit vapour and that vapour is what attracts naked light leading to fire outbreaks, so, we should the storage of petrol in our homes.

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For gas cookers, always keep your gas cylinder outside and before you use your gas cooker every day, check from the cylinder to the bonnet and the hose. If you notice anything like a wet spot or black spot, then there is leakage. What you need to do immediately in this situation is to turn the cylinder off, disconnect it and replace it. If the gas is within the building, open the windows and the doors and apply mechanical ventilation, which is putting on the fan, if you don’t have a fan, open the windows and give it some time to disperse out.

The gas is heavier than space so when it leaks, it will displace the air and occupy the place and if there is any naked fire there, the next thing is puff! So advise people using cooking gas to be putting the gas cylinder outside.

When using candle and mosquito coils provide a noncombustible base and if possible put a little water there so that even if you sleep off, that water will not extinguish the remains of either the candle or the mosquito coil.

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Another precaution to note is that when you want to refill your generators, don’t refill while the generator is still working. Many people will say oh, no problem and just go ahead to refill. That is dangerous because the coming out of the generator will now attract the vapour and set it all ablaze. You see, it is not only the generator that will catch fire in the house, but that person will also sustain injury.

It is very important to switch off the generator, allow it to cool for 10 to 20 minutes before refilling or preferably, before you switch on the generator, make sure you have a full tank or enough quantity that will take you for the period you planned for.

To safeguard your surroundings from fire accidents, make sure you clear the bushes at a distance of 12 to 15 meters. That will serve as a firebreak such that even if there is bush fire, it will not come to your house but that those not fire fliers from coming into the house and that also can lead to fire outbreak. Fireflies are the fire sparks we see going up in the air during bush fires and those can jump into the house.

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In all this, what is more, important is for you to know the telephone number of the nearest fire station to you, know the nearest fire station to you. When you notice any spark of fire in your house, don’t rush shouting and shouting, instead of close the doors and windows before you go out to shout because when you do that, the heat will exhaust the air in the space and since that fore has no more air to feed, it will go off but if you leave the doors and windows open, they will now be providing air to fan the fire to spread.

Fire alarms and smoke detectors are fire protection equipment that you can install in the home and offices for early warning. You should also have a fire extinguisher, these are called first-aid firefighting and they are of different grades. We have grades A, B, C and D because the fires are also in grades, they are not the same.
The fire you will use water to fight is different from the fire you will use chemicals to fight. There is fire class A, B, C, D and even in some countries, classes E and F are based on the material involved.

Before there is fire, the must be heated, there must be fuel and there must be oxygen because anything that is going to burn must accommodate heat up to the ignition temperature. The fuel is divided into three categories; solid, liquid and gas. Oxygen is the air that is needed for combustion. Without air, there will be no combustion but the moment there is air, then there can be a fire outbreak. These make up the triangle of combustion.

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Class A fire is those including papers and textile materials; these are free burning materials that can be extinguished with water. For class B, we are talking of fuel and other liquids like petrol, diesel, paraffin, and kerosene ordinary water cannot be used to fight this category of fire, when you go to class C, you are talking of cooking gas or cutting gas used in industries. Class D is metal fire, whether liquid or solid. These are chemicals and when they come in contact with anything burning, they will produce another chemical and so there are different extinguishers for each one of these and that is why we also use chemicals in fighting fire. If we are to use water in fighting some of these fires, it may take us up to five hour to put it out but if it is chemical, within 30 to 45 minutes, we will be done and leave.

So, people should have some of this first aid firefighting equipment in their homes and if they can invite us, we will carry out our inspection and give you the specification to go and buy and we can also train you on how to use it. This equipment needs to be serviced every three months and when you use them, you take them to the nearest fire station to be refilled and recharged. This is to maintain them to remain functional especially if you don’t use them for three to six months.

A sprinkler system can also be installed in the home. These are connected to the water main and what it does is that when you are not around and there is a fire outbreak in the building, once it reaches a certain temperature, it will break the water will spray and cover the affected area so that it will put out the fire or control that fire not to spread to other parts before the arrival of the firefighters.

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You can also use a drencher, which is always connected to the fence to check the spread of fire from neighboring houses so that if the fire is coming from your neighbor’s house, it will sprinkle water and control the fire from spreading out.

What is the situation of fire insurance in Nigeria?
It is a good question because it is one of the things we discussed during our recent conference but even before the conference, we had a meeting with the commissioner in charge of NAICOM, (Nigeria Insurance Commission), which is the supervisory body of insurance companies and the major thing that is lacking is enforcement of the law. But I advised them that before enforcement, there is the need to educate members of the public and both the FFS and NAICOM will work together to do this. We will be working with our department of Inspection, Investigation Enforcement and the insurance company to educate the public in this regard.

0.25 percent of all the money collected from fire insurance of property is given to the public fire service for maintenance and we are going to take a look at it and also see how we can enlighten members of the public. So it is after the enlightenment that we can begin the enforcement.

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There were criticism and murmurs that trail the last recruitment exercise. How have you handled that?
Is there any policy without criticism, there is none and if you are a chief executive, you should expect it. Most of those that were criticising are purely personal and as I always say, my doors are open for people. Since I came on board, I have not done any recruitment, I only inherited the recruitment on ground and I approached the minister of finance and she gave us money to train them and we trained them in about four centers. Although we have received complaints from lawyers on behalf of their clients on the exercise, we looked into it and asked them to exercise patience till we have a new recruitment exercise so that we will consider them. For those that said they paid money, we made it clear to them that when we advertised, we did not say that you should pay for anything so they should even be prosecuted. So anybody that gave money for recruitment is on his own, I have no business with that.

All good things do come to an end and your tenure too will soon be up. Though it cannot be denied that there are indeed improvements, what is your strong desire, what will you want to achieve before leaving?
My strong desire will be leaving a strong foundation and succession plan. For the succession plan, I think that has been done in the sense that we have now closed major hierarchy gaps. We discover that there was a serious gap between the top and the next and the then minister of interior, General Dambazau, felt that we should bring in people from the states fire services who have the qualification and experience to fill this gap and that we did. We also brought in people from the federal ministries to occupy levels 12, 13, 14 and 15.

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When they came on board, either as already trained firemen in the state or you are coming from the ministry, we took them to the National Fire Academy and we gave them six months of training. After the six months of training, they went on attachment again for about three months so that they can blend into the system.

With that now, the succession plan is in place and there won’t be a problem. With the current establishment of our presence in the 36 states of the federation, by the grace of God, part of next year, we are going to the senatorial districts to lay a good and firm foundation for the federal fire service. I just want to leave a legacy of a good and solid foundation for the service to continue and leave a good succession plan.

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I really appreciate President Muhammadu Buhari for extending my tenure by 18 months since December 2020.
What else would you like to say?

I would like to appeal to your colleagues, (journalists), in the print and electronic media, when anything is reported to you, investigate. My doors are open so do not listen to one party alone and go to press, it is not right and it is not good journalism. No one said anybody should not have complaints but some can be addressed and those that cannot be addressed, explanation can be given as to why such action was taken and as I said earlier, my doors are always open. I carry my officers along especially the management staff and also encourage them to do the same in carrying their subordinates along.

To members of the public, I plead with them to please cooperate with the federal fire service and also the states fire services. Whenever we are going to the fire ground, give us our right of way and do not stone our personnel or the equipment.

To the personnel of the fire services, to whom much is given, much is expected. This administration has given us what for hundred years we could not get, so we need to put in our best and do the right thing at the right time instead of accusing each other. Always make your enquiries and follow legal means of addressing issues instead of engaging external people to write petitions and all that, as it cannot augur well for the service.

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