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Fire service: Neglected at the peril of citizens

By Onyedika Agbedo
02 November 2019   |   4:21 am
At the maiden meeting of the present Federal Executive Council (FEC), President Muhammadu Buhari explained why he created the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management.

…Despite increasing incidents of fire disasters, Fire Service departments across the country are in shambles
At the maiden meeting of the present Federal Executive Council (FEC), President Muhammadu Buhari explained why he created the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. His reasons were not far-fetched. The country was contending with a lot of humanitarian issues, which were occasioned by unforeseen situations like the Boko Haram insurgency that has displaced thousands of people in the Northeast region of the country, flood disasters and fire outbreaks, among others. People affected by these unfortunate incidents no doubt needs support from wherever it can come from, especially the government. Although the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has been on ground to tackle such cases, the President felt that creating the new Ministry was necessary “to fully institutionalise our various interventions that support some of the poorest and most distressed citizens of our country.”

As is the practice in our political system, it will not be surprising to see the states follow suit with time just like they did with the creation of State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), their own replica of NEPA.

But at the bottom of Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis is the ill preparedness of the agencies mandated to either nip foretold disasters in the bud or mitigate the effects of unforeseen disasters on the victims. Thus, a million humanitarian affairs ministries across the country without the enablement to function effectively will absolutely not yield the desired result.

For instance, the recent fire outbreak in Onitsha, Anambra State claimed five lives and razed over 500 lock-up shops on Iweka Street Market. Although, the state has a Fire Service Department attached to the Ministry of Power and Water Resources, they were just not prepared to intervene. But for firemen from the Delta State Fire Service that were drafted to put out the fire, more casualities could have been recorded.

The Federal Fire Service would later explain that a mob prevented its men from accessing the scene of the incident. “The Federal Fire Service received a call about the fire outbreak around 2.00p.m. The control room at the headquarters in Abuja immediately turned to its nearest station at Asaba, Delta State, to attend to the fire. Our men immediately headed to the scene, but it was not possible to contend with the heavy traffic at the Niger head bridge, coupled with the behaviour of an angry mob who pelted stones at them.

“Thus, it was not possible for the firefighters to get to the scene of fight in such a hostile environment,” Ugo Huan, spokesman of the agency, said in a statement.

There must always be excuses for failure. But where was the Anambra State Fire Service? They didn’t come into the picture and no explanation has been offered. Were they so much ill-equipped that they couldn’t even stage an attempt to save the situation despite having three fire stations located in strategic places in Onitsha?

Fire outbreaks are precipitous and therefore require strategic reactions from the Fire service, the agency trained and equipped to respond to such situations. But as seen in the Onitsha incident, this is not always the case. Hence, The Guardian examined the state of the Fire Service in the country, especially at the state level. The findings showed that while some state governments have come to the realisation that the Fire Service is an important agency of government and have steadily upgraded their capacities, many remain hapless fire fighters as inferno continues to wreck havoc in cities across Nigeria. Reports below capture the sordid state of these inept agancies:

Anambra Moves To Upgrade Agency After Onitsha Fire Outbreak
From Osiberoha Osibe, Awka
After the latest fire incident in Onitsha, Anambra State and the destructions that came with it, the State Fire Service appears to have woken up from slumber. The Guardian learnt that Governor Willie Obiano has ordered the agency to step up its activities to forestall a reoccurrence of such incident. Meanwhile, the statistics of fire incidents in the state has been on the rise. In 2018, the Fire Service recorded 110 fire outbreaks across the state while no fewer than 30 fire incidents have been recorded this year.

Nevertheless, investigations showed that the Fire Service has fire stations located in strategic places in major cities state but were hitherto not well-equipped to discharge their duties effectively. For instance, at the state capital, Awka, there are three fire service stations located at the state command headquarters situated at Eze-Uzu junction, Agu-Awka. In Onitsha, the commercial nerve-centre of the state, there are three fire stations, namely, the Main Market fire station, Nkpor fire station and Okpoko fire station, Obodoukwu road. It was learnt that the state was planning to build an additional fire service station at Okpoko to tackle incessant fire incidents around Onitsha and Okpoko axis.

In Nnewi, the fast-growing industrial city in the state, there is the Nnewi fire station at Nkwo Nnewi Main Market, Nnewi. Other stations are the Building Market fire station, Ogidi, Idemili North local council headquarters; Ekwulobia fire station at Sports Stadium, Ekwulobia and Otuocha fire station in Anambra East local council.

There are also newly-established fire stations at Umunze, Orumba local council; Agulu in Anaocha local council and Ihiala in Ihiala local council.

Meanwhile, there are areas in the state that ought to have at least one fire station each have have none. Such places include Abagana/Enugwu-ukwu axis in Njikoka local council; Awka North local council, Okija in Ihiala local council and Oko in Aguata local council.

It was gathered that the state has about 20 fire-fighting trucks in all, including back-up water tankers spread across the fire stations. Out of these, eight are non-functional, but following the recent fire incidents in Onitsha, the state governor directed the repair of all the non-functional trucks of the Fire Service.

Further investigations showed that the State Fire Service is an appendage of the Ministry of Power and Water Resources. The ministry had as estimated capital expenditure of N1.827 billion in 2017; N2.375 billion in 2018, and N2.850 billion in 2019. Out of this amount, N3,756, 183 was earmarked for the Fire Service in 2017; N4,131,800 in 2018, and N4,544,982 in 2019.

The State Director of Fire Service, Martin Agbili, an engineer, who is also the state chairman of Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE), could not be reached for comments. However, a member of staff of the Service who pleaded anonymity told The Guardian that the governor has ordered for the provision of six additional big trucks to the Service.

“In addition, orders have been placed for four mini-fire trucks that will act as first responder and be able to penetrate the nooks and crannies where the big ones cannot access,” he said.

The staff also noted that the welfare of employees in the Fire Service has been improved, saying: “Salaries and allowances of the fire service officers have largely been improved by about 100 per cent from what we earned before now. Also, our hazard allowance has been increased to N20,000 monthly.” But he bemoaned poor budgetary provisions to the Service, noting that it was hampering their efficiency.

He added: “The staff strength is not anything to write home about. In fact, the conditions of service were not encouraging. But with the recent fire incidents, the state government has come to the realisation that the Fire Service needs adequate attention to perform efficiently. The governor has ordered the increase of the staff strength from 70 to 120.”

Another source, who also pleaded anonymity, said the government was being reactive, questioning the rationale behind the many years of neglect the Fire Service had endured.

“How could past governments place staff on salaries and allowances that are not motivating. Also, there are no boreholes to make water available for the Service and where they exist, they are dilapidated and non-functional. It is now that government is rising to the occasion,” he said.

Adamawa Fire Service Has One Fire Fighting Truck
From Emmanuel Ande,Yola
Residents of Yola, the Adamawa State capital,will be left to fate in case of a fire outbreak as there will be no help from the state Fire Service due to obsolete equipment and inadequate staff. When The Guardian visited the state Fire Service headquarters located along Galadima Aminu Road, there were five fire fighting trucks in the station, four of which were without tyres. So, it could be said that the state has only one fire fighting truck. It was observed that water was leaking from the tank of the only functional truck in the station. Buckets were kept under the vehicle for collection of the water, a sign that the vehicle might not be of any help in case of a fire outbreak.

Observations in the building also showed that the offices were demarcated with local woods, a clear indication of the total neglect of the State Fire Service by the government.

An official of the Service who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the agency had 3,500 fire men 30 years ago but disclosed that the number has reduced to 85 due to non-recruitment of staff even though people retire every year.

“In the next five years, our staff strength will be less than 40 because of the retirement age. If government fails to embark on massive recruitment, the fire service department will soon go into extinction due to retirement,” he said.

The official confirmed that both the Jimeta Modern Market and the Jimeta Shopping Complex were constructed without a provision for fire service stations to attend to fire outbreaks.

He said that the April fire outbreak in the modern market, which razed the entire chicken section, was possible because there was no fire service station in the market.

“Jimeta modern market is the only modern market in the country without a fire service unit. The market was designed without a fire service unit. But despite that, the government is supposed to build it and provide functional fire fighting trucks. Businesses worth billions of naira are being transacted daily there and there is no fire station in such a market. So, how secure are the businesses?” He queried.

He further revealed that the state Fire Service would soon run out of fire fighting chemicals, adding that there was no fire alert, which could alert them whenever there is fire outbreak in the state capital.

The official claimed that there were three fire fighting trucks in Yola. He, however, could not explain where the other two trucks were parked or stationed as The Guardian saw only one on ground at the headquarters and there was no other fire station in the state capital.

Fire Prevention Is Everyone’s Business, Says Oziwele
From Sony Neme, Asaba
The Delta State Fire Service is well equipped to deliver on their duty, The Guardian findings have shown. This is courtesy of the state government that increased their functional stations to 14 with 20 active trucks from the mere three trucks that serviced the entire state before the coming of the Governor Ifeanyi Okowa administration.

Despite this improvement, some personnel who spoke on condition of anonymity bemoaned a situation where their salaries and emoluments were a far cry from their federal counterparts and other uniform personnel in the state.

According to a source, “with my rank, my equivalent in the police force earns close to N200,000 while my take home is merely N75,000. Yet we are involved in a very risky job. There are so many areas that need attention.”

However, Director, Delta Fire Service Command, Oziwele Eugene, said the passion for the job has seen the personnel achieve many feats despite the complaints. He recalled their heroic role at the Onitsha incident, saying: “What happened at Onitsha was not the first or second time of our intervention outside the state. It has always been the case, even recently at Benin in Edo State, where they had an electrically-induced inferno, I had to turn in my men from Oghara and Sapele stations, because they are closer to Benin. And they delivered.”

He further stressed that whenever there is fire anywhere, a fireman is motivated to move in to help out. “But we don’t do that without clearance from the relevant authority, as the issue of jurisdiction comes into play. So, we seek for the nod of the state governor before we move in to help,” he disclosed.

Findings showed that out of the 22 fire service stations in the state, 14 functional stations are located in Asaba, Ogwashi-Uku Polythechnic, Warri, Agbor, Asaba International Airport, Kwale, Sapele, Koko, Oghara, Issele-Uku, Ughelli and four other locations.

On the worthiness of the fire fighting trucks parked at the stations, Oziwele said they were in good conditions, saying their main challenge was residents’ poor attitude to fire prevention and support to the Fire Service.

His words: “Our main challenge is not our capabilities but the citizens. We regularly publicise our emergency free toll numbers, yet residents do not take it to heart. When there is fire, you will see them running helter-skelter in panic. In most cases, before they remember to call, major damages would have occurred. Put a call to us as soon as you notice fire outbreak; do what you can till we arrive, because we prefer the preventive measures, instead of allowing damages and then you pour all blames on firemen.

“Like the Onitsha incident, my men were pelted and chased away, and then blaming them for coming late. When you ask them if they even have our numbers, you will discover they do not have it. Even here in Asaba, we faced same situation at a petrol station. I managed to calm them and at the end, I approached the manager, who admitted not having our numbers. Thank God the governor has stepped up activities that are properly positioning the command for more efficiency.

“One of our major concerns for expansion was that of personnel. But the governor has given us the nod to employ 100 more firemen.The process is on. Once we are through with that, more service stations would be opened. Already, the state has built stations at Bomadi, Patani and a couple of others nearing completion; and waiting for men to occupy them. And 100 men can effectively man three stations. When you add that to the 357 in the state, then we have 457 and you know what that would translate into in terms of fire prevention and control.”

On the issue of motivation, condition of service and what they need to function properly, Oziwele said: “What I want to say here is that when you like what you are doing, you do not need external hands to motivate you. It is all about passion for service. Personally, if I am on bed at 2.00a.m. and a fire truck is passing by, I will get up and be on my way to the direction it is headed. But like Oliver Twist, we can always ask for more. We know what we were getting as hazard allowance, and we know what the state governor is doing to augment it, which is above 1,000 per cent.

“Even with what our federal counterparts are getting, and what other paramilitary agencies are taking home, we at the state are not getting that, though we know it is in the pipeline.”

He noted that firemen who died, got incapacitated or injured in the course of duty were adequately compensated. “The latest beneficiary is from Oghara station, who, on Friday, October 25, was handed over his cheque from an insurance company for the injury he sustained recently.  When it happened he was admitted and given adequate treatment from the group insurance scheme put in place by the state governor for firemen,” he explained.

Rivers Fire Service Suffers Severe Neglect Despite Protest By Workers
From Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
The Rivers State Fire Service is still facing neglect by the state government despite series of fire outbreaks that razed houses and markets across the state. There have also been protests by staffers of the state Fire Service over lack of fire fighting equipment and essential facilities in the fire stations.

A visit to the state Fire Service headquarters located behind Isaac Boro Park, Port Harcourt, showed that obsolete equipment, lack of effective communication gadgets, shortage of water supply and a very deplorable environment bedevil the service.

The Guardian findings revealed that there has been no budget for the state Fire Service in recent years.

A visitor to the complex is greeted with the sight of an obsolete structure, potholes and stagnant water, which betrays the level of neglect the Service has been subjected to. Out of nine trucks sighted at the complex, only two were said to be functional; others had flat tires, engine problems and bodywork challenges, among others, and have been abandoned for years.

Ideally, experts said, the state Fire Service headquarters ought to have at least 10 functional fire fighting trucks with nine to 10 sub-stations across the state due to the vastness of the state. But presently, there is no functional Fire Service sub-station in Rivers.The existing three sub-stations at Borokiri, Rumuodumanya and Ahoada lack functional equipment and manpower. The stations are presently not operational.

Though workers seen at the complex declined speaking with The Guardian, a reliable source disclosed that the fire fighters and entire staff of the station lack training and re-training. They also complain about poor welfare package even as there is no insurance cover for the workers.

Aggrieved workers of the Service had protested against the above challenges two years ago. The protesters lamented that they had not been able to respond to distress calls from members of the public due to lack of facilities. Two years after the protest, nothing has been done to address the situation.

Observations showed that during fire outbreaks across the state, it is either the firemen from Total, Agip or Shell that conduct rescue operation. The state Fire Service either arrives the scene late or fails to come at all, hiding under the complaint that they lack water to fight the fire.

Some of the residents who spoke with The Guardian expressed lack of confidence in the state Fire Service, calling on Governor Nyesom Wike to give serious attention to the agency.

Nnabugo Ejimadu said: “The services of fire fighters in Rivers State is very poor because if we have emergency, it will take them four to five hours to arrive the scene and before they arrive, the whole place will be razed by fire, like the fire that gutted the Mile One market some years back and Fruit Garden market last year.

“The fault is not theirs; government should be blamed. How can a large state like Rivers have only one fire station, yet the one we are talking about have no functional equipment and communication gadgets? This state is supposed to have not less than 10 fire service sub-stations to ensure easy and quick movement in case of emergencies.”

Another trader at Mile One market, Mrs Elizabeth Ndu said: “The government knows the right thing to do; every day we are hearing of roads but the roads are even bad. There is money in this state. Government should channel funds to the state Fire Service and refurbish it to become active.”

Another trader, Agnes Frank said: “Seriously, we are tired of our leaders. They seem to lack focus and direction. Imagine since two years ago a protest was carried out over this challenge, government should have acted and brought the fire service back to life. But here we are, talking the same thing over and over.

“How much will it take government to fix the state Fire Service? Look, the dry season and harmattan is near, a time we witness high level of fire outbreaks. Yet there is no sign of readiness in this state.”

Imo Has Only One Fire Station
From Charles Ogugbuaja, Owerri
The Imo State Fire Service is in a sorry state despite having just one fire station in Owerri, the state capital. The only station was constructed at the twilight of the Rochas Okorocha administration. Meanwhile, the state needs fire stations at strategic locations in Owerri and at least a station each in the 27 local council areas.

Some members of staff of the service who spoke with The Guardian relayed the pitiable state of the fire fighting agency in Imo.

According to them, the agency does not have enough fire fighting trucks and other materials.

“In fact only one functional machine is here. We have written to relevant authorities to buy more fire fighting trucks, liquid chemical and communication gadgets, but all seem to be falling on deaf ears. We also need training on modern fire fighting techniques. The workers are not motivated enough to carry out their duty,” said one of the firemen.

Incessant Fire Outbreaks Expose Rot In Abia Service
From GordiUdeajah, Umuahia
Abia State has recorded 350 fire outbreaks this year, which destroyed lives and property worth billions of naira. According to the Comptroller of the state Fire Service, Mr Victor Okey Gbaruko, Aba, the state’s commercial hub accounted for 250 of the fire incidents.

Prominent among the incidents were the Umuaturu in Osisioma Ngwa local council inferno that resulted from pipeline explosions, the Guinness Breweries inferno at Osisioma, the National Root Crops Research Institute Umudike inferno which was caused by bush burning and the Nkwo Ngwa market in Aba South local council fire outbreak that burnt 150 shops early in this year.

Despite the alarming statistics, Gbaruko told The Guardian that the state Fire Service is presently poorly equipped to effectively perform its statutory duty. He said that out of the seven fire engines in its kit, only two were serviceable while the other five were due for repairs and would cost a lot of funds.

“We have fire stations at Aba, Umuahia the state capital with plan to have others at Ohafia, Owerrinta and Abia State University Uturu, among other areas, which are considered as fire flash-points. We need a minimum of 10 fire engines in the state to cover certain flash-points,” he said.

He disclosed that the Service has about 200 staff, adding that many of them still require training on operations.  “They require not only training but also motivation by way of payment of hazard and other allowances including provision of operational kits like Tunics,” he added.

Gbaruko, who is the current National President of Conference of Fire Service Directors and Comptrollers in Nigeria said “most states in the country do not give due priority to fire fighting and prevention by being pro-active,” adding that “states like Lagos, Kano, FCT and Enugu have however met critical fire provisions.”

He stated that Abia State House of Assembly has enacted a law towards strengthening the state Fire Service, which has been assented to by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu.

He, however, listed some measures to prevent fire outbreaks, saying it should not be left to the Fire Service alone.

His words: “While people must buy petroleum products directly from approved outlets, the sellers should sell them only after discharging them from the conveying vehicles. Vehicle owners must have the appropriate fire extinguishers certified by the Fire Service. Obsolete pipelines must be changed, low quality electrical cables should not be used, avoiding charging multiple appliances in one spot and ensuring that appliances not in use are disconnected.”