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‘But for rescuers’ skills, other Ikoyi buildings would have collapsed’

By Felix Kuye
05 February 2022   |   4:16 am
LASEMA is the coordinating agency for management of emergency/disaster. It does not work alone, but with some respondents– Fire Service, Ambulance Services, Building Control Agency, Lagos State Transport Management Authority...

Femi Oke-Osanyintolu

Director General of Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), Dr. Femi Oke-Osanyintolu recently spoke to select journalists including Felix Kuye, Deputy Editor, on rescue operations by his agency, particularly at the scene of the collapsed 21-storey Ikoyi building. Excerpts:

Managing Emergency/Disaster In Lagos State
LASEMA is the coordinating agency for management of emergency/disaster. It does not work alone, but with some respondents– Fire Service, Ambulance Services, Building Control Agency, Lagos State Transport Management Authority (LASTMA) and Safety Commission. The respondents are currently being strengthened. For example, the Fire Service has been moved out of a ministry to be made an agency standing on its own. We are building fire service stations all over the state. The LASEMBUS in the Ministry of Health is being repositioned. We are buying new ambulances and other necessary equipment not to provide efficient health services alone but to be able to swiftly handle any emergency that may arise in the course of doing that. We have done vulnerability and risk analyses with regard to what residents of Lagos are prone to, and we have purchased relevant and sophisticated tools to tackle any emergency/disaster.

This is the reason when the 21-storey Ikoyi building collapsed, we were able to handle what ought to be a national disaster. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu himself took charge. He was at the scene of the collapsed building at Ikoyi to boost the spirit of the rescuers and calm down families of the victims. Despite the high population of Lagos, the infrastructure like the airport and seaports, the high vehicular and human traffic, we have been able to reduce mortalities associated with disasters in different areas. We have had fuel tankers accidents, especially at Otedola bridge, and containers are falling at Apapa.

Alleged Late Response To Emergency Calls
There was an allegation of late response to emergency calls by LASEMA, especially in the case of the Ikoyi building collapse when it was said that ordinary people got to the scene before the rescue agency. The truth is that the critics are ignorant of the way LASEMA operates. LASEMA does not work alone. It works as a coordinating agency. We have a structure. The people that you said got to the scene of the disaster before us are actually part of us. They are members of our local emergency management committee. I cannot be everywhere every time in Lagos State. We have local committees in each local council development area. When you alert us at LASEMA to any emergency, for example in Badagry, we will say we have these people there, we have this committee there and we will activate the committee and members will move swiftly to the scene of emergency/disaster. Apart from these people, we also have Red Cross, members of the Boys Scouts Organisation and others who work with us. When we call them, they will quickly move down there. When they get there, they will define the type of emergency at hand, whether it is minor or major. Their definition will determine the type of equipment we will deploy for rescue or other operation. If it is a minor emergency, there is a level of the management committee that will handle it. It is when it is a full-blown emergency that the ‘Super Eagle’ himself will move down there. Unfortunately, people define emergency based on whether the DG of LASEMA is there or not. It is wrong. This is one of the reasons we strongly need to partner with the media.

The Ikoyi building collapse was actually a national disaster. We are talking about a 21-story building. It is the duty of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to take charge. But Governor Sanwo-Olu effectively took charge and provided the needed leadership.

Challenges Faced During Ikoyi Rescue Operation
The job was not done by LASEMA alone, but we led the team and we were there with sophisticated equipment. I led the coordinating aspect. I nearly lost my life during the operation. I was working with two categories of rescuers. We had people who had never done the work before. We called in experts from Julius Berger and HITECH whose main function is not to respond to emergency but to construct roads. It was a challenge to mix people with rescue operation experience and those who do not have the experience. When I was giving orders, it was sometimes difficult for the orders to be utilised by those without experience. And in that type of situation, we were to save lives within 24, 48 and 96 hours. We had the equipment, including life detector. We were also operating in very uncooperative terrain because the families of those who were trapped in the massive rubbles were panicking greatly. They wanted us to do wonders. In the construction of the collapsed building, some materials were used that made it difficult for air to penetrate. Another major challenge was the fact that the collapsed 21-storey building had a17-storey, an 18-storey and other tall buildings adjoining it. There was great fear that in the process of rescuing lives from the collapsed building, the adjoining 17-storey and the 18-storey buildings could also collapse. The way the rescue operation was carried out deserves commendation. It was not just being able to bring down the collapsed building to zero level within two weeks, we were also able to save the other tall buildings. If we had used the over 15 heavy-duty equipment we brought to the scene, the vibration would have made the adjoining buildings to shake and also collapse, and it would have been another great disaster. I would have lost my life when I directed an operator to put his ‘payloader’ at a level and he just came for me and carried me up. This is one of the dark sides of emergency management. You can imagine the panic that this would have caused in the area.

The panic by the families of the victims was enormous such that despite the fact that we put red tape to cordon off the scene, many of them wanted to enter and any unfortunate thing could also have happened to them. We were able to save 50 lives intact and recovered 50 bodies, and we decontaminated the place. Nobody could say there was still somebody to be rescued.

Frequent Building Collapse, Fuel Tanker Fire
In trying to identify the causes, we can look at the disasters from several perspectives. In the 1970s and 1980s when the railway system was working efficiently, tanker fire accident was not common. The number of articulated vehicles transporting fuel has increased considerably. Many of these vehicles carry more than the normal volume of fuel. Apart from the fact that these vehicles are not properly maintained, the shape, tyres, brake system, horn and others crucial parts are usually defective. The drivers are usually very young boys that are very reckless, not educated and sometimes driving after drinking alcohol. Some of these cause accidents that are usually fatal. The state government is talking to the unions in charge of those transporting fuel, including National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and we have agreed on some things. One of them is that, from the tank farms, they should not allow the tankers to carry excess fuel. They must ensure that the vehicles are well maintained and they should not speed excessively. Governor Sanwo-Olu has directed the Ministry of Health to always check the alcohol level in the body of the drivers at the parks. He has also banned sale of Tramadol and its likes at the parks and directed LASTMA, Federal Roads Safety Commission (FRSC), National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), vehicle inspection officers and a special unit set up under the control of his special adviser on transportation to be on the watch.

Alerting LASEMA To Disaster
We have improved on our communication system. If you want to alert us to any emergency/disaster, call 112767. Governor Sanwo-Olu is doing everything possible to ensure that reaching us through the phone number is easy. You can also call us through the Lagos Traffic Radio. My number is also in the public domain. You can send SMS to me directly to call attention to ay emergency/disaster.

Accessing Emergency Scene
When we are going for emergency operation, anybody that causes obstruction without any genuine reason will be sanctioned. We will take photograph of any such vehicle and send it to the Ministry of Justice to look at it for the next action to be taken. Any articulated vehicle that is not functioning properly, if it breaks down unnecessarily, not by reason of accident, we will ‘book’ the vehicle, take pictures, check with the vehicle inspection officers and send it to the Ministry of Justice. Also, if you damage our infrastructure because of your recklessness or bad attitude, we will not allow you to go.

Building Capacity To Handle Emergency/Disaster
Today, we are building capacity all over Lagos State. We have local emergency management committees at each of the 57 local council development areas and at the hospitals. We have identified people we are going to bring on board to be able to work more efficiently. The media have to be part of what we are doing. They have to be a primary respondent because of some challenges that we are facing. One of them is the fact that information dissemination in Lagos State during emergency/disaster is usually very poor. The main problem with the disaster that occurred in January 2001 when there were bomb blasts at Maryland area of Ikeja was poor information dissemination and poor coordination.

Whenever we are going for any form of rescue operation, we will inform the media and they will be the ones to inform Lagos residents what is happening at the scene. In 2022, we will be aggressive in terms of sensitisation and advocacy. We will also go to the grassroots to build capacity. This is going to be done by the four main respondents. Our media will report correct information. It won’t be that there are five casualties and some people will be reporting 10. This can cause panic in the system, therefore, we will not tolerate it.