Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nigeria Fire Service and Disaster Management Challenge

Disaster strikes every day. In Nigeria, managing calamities when they occur has been very challenging. There have been plane crashes, road accidents, boat mishaps, building collapse and fire outbreaks that exposed our poor state of preparedness for disaster prevention, control and management. The Nigeria Fire Service is one of the several agencies responsible for disaster management. According to the charter of the Federal Fire Service, its statutory responsibilities cut across: Ensuring safety of lives and property and giving impulse to capacity building of the nation’s fire services through the establishment and monitoring of standards in fire prevention, fire education and training; national fire statistics and promotion of legislative instruments for a fire safe nation as well as promotion of capacity building in the State Fire Services through manpower development, appropriate fire stations and equipment and effective community based fire safety outfits.
Among the roles the Nigeria Fire Service perform are: Formulation, monitoring and evaluation of policies on national fire safety delivery; preparation and submission to the Federal Government, as situation demands, proposals for national fire safety development programmes and plans; provision of inputs for the construction of public structures and all buildings above four floors such as corporate headquarters of Ministries and Parastatals; fire cover for major events hosted by the government; resource persons for commissions of enquiry whenever they are set up to investigate the cause of a Fire incidence and provide recommendations to forestall future occurrences. Others are, promotion of fire prevention and basic fire fighting in markets, schools, hospitals, industries, corporate organizations and the hospitality industry; and fostering of interaction between Federal Fire Service and Fire Services in the States in order to enhance community fire safety partnerships aimed at minimizing careless fire outbreaks.
The scorecard of Nigeria fire service is very dismal. The agency has become an anathema, a byword such that the phrase fire brigade approach has been coined in Nigeria to describe late response to issues or assignments and unconventional work ethics. Among the many challenges of the Service are: shortage of fire stations, lack of effective communication system, shortage of water supply, obsolete equipment, poor training, shortage of manpower, lack of welfare package for officers and men of the fire service (this include attractive salary and insurance policy) and road traffic jams. The situation has worsened to the extent that Nigeria now depend more on multinational construction and oil companies for disaster management.
Fortunately, the Service itself is aware of its low rating and lack of confidence among Nigerian populace. However, it is also quick to provide an alibi in the fact that the agency over time has suffered untold neglect by the government. Federal Fire Service is an agency under the Federal Ministry of Interior and the ministry is responsible for the budget allocation to the Service. Perhaps because Fire Service does not generate income to government as other agencies in the ministry such as Nigeria Immigration Service and Nigeria Customs Service, coupled with our notoriety at misplaced priorities, Nigeria Fire Service is perennially starved of fund. This attitude must change if we intend to have an effective and efficient Fire Brigade.
In October 2009, the first National Fire Conference was held in Abuja. At the end of the conference, the following resolutions were reached: The immediate implementation of the report of the committee on the reorganization of Fire Services in the country as approved by the Federal Executive Council and ratified by the Council on Establishment; review of the present fire fighters training modules for continuous professional development; establishment of more fire stations to reduce response time during emergencies; improved water supply within the metropolis with hydrants located at not more than 100 metres along the reticulation lines as well as for every fire station to have a water tanker of not less than 10,000 litres capacity as an interim solution; improved communication system for better management of emergencies for enhanced safety delivery and to expedite action on the three-digit toll-free national emergency number; better surveillance of the country’s water ways; improved fire fighters personal protective gears and accident insurance policy; Joint training/simulation and mock exercises for all disaster responders to enhance operational co-operation, command and control; approval of a proposed National Fire Safety Code and improved funding by government for the Federal Fire Services at states and federal levels.
During the conference, it was revealed by the Comptroller General of the Federal Fire Service, Mr. Olusegun James Okebiorun, an engineer, that plans are afoot to set up a National Fire Academy, which will be the official fire training institution for the country with its main campus in Abuja. Through the academy, future fire-fighters will engage in practical and hands-on equipment training to meet international standards and the institution will offer various levels of training for crew command, watch command, station command and brigade command. Other activities to be undertaken in the academy are fire ground operations, search and rescue operations, fire prevention, fire protection, fire investigation, records keeping, supervising techniques command and control and fire service administration.
Quite a shopping list! However, the missing links are the milestones and the timelines within which all these will be done. As the 2010 budget is being put together, the cost implication of some of these recommendations must be factored into the appropriation bill. Disaster management is a serious business which must not be taken with levity. So many lives and properties have been lost to preventable catastrophes. Even when the unenvisaged ones occur it behoves the government at all levels to ensure that there is timely, coordinated and effective response so as to minimise loss. It is a good thing that the Federal Fire Service is advocating for private fire stations to compliment the services rendered by the government fire brigade. It is also heart-warming to note that the Federal Fire Service is embarking on reorganization for enhanced productivity; collaborating with water board for improved water supply and fire hydrant installation and working with the Federal Road Safety Corps on awareness education about right-of-way for Fire Fighting Vehicles on emergency calls. All these are far-reaching commitments. It is important for the Nigerian mass media and the general public to lend support to the campaign on fire and general disaster prevention and control.