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Memo to Buhari on fire disasters

By Fidelis Ogbogoh
08 May 2015   |   1:33 am
SAFETY of life and property, which, ordinarily, should occupy a major plank in the programmes and plans of our governments at all levels, has not attracted enough public debate in Nigeria.


SAFETY of life and property, which, ordinarily, should occupy a major plank in the programmes and plans of our governments at all levels, has not attracted enough public debate in Nigeria.

Successive federal and state governments simply have not shown sufficient concern and commitment to fire prevention and fighting. The result is that vast estates and huge public buildings are daily ravaged by preventable fire, while those who should take the bold decisions, appear to lack the political will to protect the nation and its commonwealth from wanton destruction by fire.

I say with deep sense of duty as the former number one Fire Officer in Nigeria that once fire gets out of control, it has no respect for class or creed. It becomes, at once, man’s worst enemy. It takes no hostages.

The heat alone can kill. Room temperatures in a fire situation can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level, and rise to 600 degrees Fahrenheit at eye level. Inhaling this super-hot air will scorch the lungs.

The heat can melt clothes to the skin. In five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once; this is called flashover. We must never forget that the Twin-Tower of the Trade Centre in New York City just melted like ice cream under intense heat.  Fire is deadly! It uses up the oxygen we need and produces smoke and poisonous gases that kill. Fire maims and destroys.

I should mention that former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in the course of his presidency, once remarked, and it is largely true, that the annual budget of New York Fire Service is more than the entire budget of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Yet, under his watch for eight years, the Federal Fire Service got zero capital allocation.  Interestingly, in a foreword in the 2008 National Emergency Management Agency Annual Report, then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan observed that the Federal Government was aware of the enormity of the challenges facing disaster management agencies.

Seven years after, the facts on ground show that no single value has been added to disaster management in Nigeria. Instead, it seriously nosedived to a pitiable level so much that both the Federal Fire Service which I once headed, and the State Fire Services that should in the event of disasters be co-ordinated by NEMA are so dysfunctional and ineffective that Nigeria now depends almost entirely on private multinational construction companies like Julius Berger for search and rescue operations in the country deploying their facilities for emergency interventions.

This unfortunate situation debases our national honour and integrity.   Yes, a Presidential Committee was set up in 2005 by the Obasanjo Administration to reorganize the Fire Services.

The committee had representatives from each of the six geo-political zones. The Report of the Committee was submitted to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in 2006.

Unfortunately, FEC chose to ignore that portion that recommended that the Federal Fire Service (FFS) should reside in the Presidency. The Committee considered this essential to enable the Service to take on the role of a regulatory agency, policy setting, compliance-monitoring, capacity building and enforcement of the National Fire Code.

Instead, in 2007, FEC approved among others that the Federal Fire Service be transferred to the Federal Ministry of Interior. However, Minister of Interior, Abba Patrick Moro, realised the absence of a national roadmap for effective and efficient service-delivery.

He constituted a nine-member Ministerial Committee that was inaugurated on November 14, 2011 and mandated to “examine the current structure of the Service and recommend, as appropriate, what can be done – drawing references from developed and developing countries of the world”.

The Committee’s Report was submitted on April 25, 2012. The story remains the same. At present, Nigeria has a total of 252 ill-equipped and poorly-manned fire stations covering a geographic area of 909,890 square kilometers in 774 Local Government Areas.

In effect, one fire station takes care of three Local Governments with an average population of over 450,000 living in a space area of approximately 2,637 square kilometres.

At the minimum, Nigeria needs 1,144 fire stations to effectively protect her national assets, safeguard the lives of millions of her citizens and resident foreigners.

Many recent disasters like fire outbreaks, collapsed buildings, plane crashes, epidemics and internal security threats arising from terrorism, bomb blasts and so on, make it absolutely necessary to have a functional Fire Service for the protection of our national wealth.   Fire awareness in Nigeria is low.

As a result, fire disasters have become so frequent that it now occurs almost on a daily basis across our country without any serious intervention. For first responders to act promptly, we need “three-digit” emergency number, instead of the elongated 08033000490.

In an emergency, no one remembers long numbers. In other climes, it is simply 112, 911 or other three-digit number. Tragically, the Kano State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Alhaji Abdullahi  Minkaila, and his family died recently in an inferno when their home was engulfed by fire.

The state’s Fire Service did not respond because they were not called. When the terrorists hit the World Trade Centre and other targets during the September 11 attacks in America some years ago, the first set of people that responded promptly were fire fighters.

All over the world, there are Emergency Agencies, and the Fire Brigades are invariably central to that formation. Three-digit emergency numbers are usually routed via a call centre to promptly request their services.

Essential to the efficiency of any organization is the appointment of officers and managers that have the relevant qualifications, know-how and robust experiences for the roles assigned to them.

Today, the Federal Fire Service as well as State Fire Services lacks appropriate training facility for fire-fighters (officers and men). The National Fire Academy, under construction since 1999 at Sheda, Abuja; has been abandoned. Security at our airports is improving daily based on recommendations, but the recommendations of several commissions for improved fire security at the airports are yet to be implemented.

Nigeria still does not have a single aircraft training simulator for the training of NAA firefighters. Ninety per cent of the firemen at our airports have no knowledge of aviation fire-fighting.

A handful of them with aviation fire-fighting training were trained in Duala, Cameroun. Current mode of training for firefighters in Nigeria begins and ends with just lacing old used motor tyres with PMS, and setting them on fire at ground zero, for trainees to put out.

It is sad!   Recent statistics show that N54 billion worth of properties were lost to fire in the last three years in Lagos alone. Across the country, monumental losses resulting from fire disasters are even more frightening.

I then ask: How can we grow our economy and develop our country with so much destruction of life and property by fire?  Fire security is on the concurrent list in our constitution as amended.

After the 2011 elections, I wrote an open letter to state governors pointing out that good governance should accommodate the commitment to protect life and property of the citizenry.

I hope that the wind of change around the corner would also blow towards our fire services. The Service needs an overhaul. Your Excellency, permit me to end this memo with a famous quote from Albert-Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” •Ogbogoh, an engineer, was Comptroller-General, Federal Fire Service.  .