Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The criminal neglect of Nigeria’s Fire Service

“Today’s Federal Executive Council approved the procurement of some fire-fighting equipment. The last time equipment were procured was sometime in 1996.The equipment in the inventory today were those procured between 1985 and 1996, and since then there was no procurement.” -  Interior Minister, Lt. Gen.  Abdulrahman Dambazzau (Retd.) on January 4, 2017.

When I heard the above statement in the news last Wednesday, I shuddered. This is flabbergasting! For twenty years Nigeria did not improve or increase the paraphernalia of the Federal Fire Service. Yet, many of us tongue lash and molest firemen when they come late for rescue operation or are unable to deal efficiently and effectively with emergency situation when summoned. We do these in anger and ignorance of the numerous challenges this very important government agency has to contend with. I was quite aware that things are bad with the country’s Federal Fire Service but I never knew it’s this deplorable.

This is a country that has to contend with numerous fire and other disasters on daily basis. Yet, for two decades there was no new addition to the tools of the primary agency responsible for the management of fire disasters .This, to say the least, is criminal, condemnable and heart-rending! Imagine hundreds of lives that have been lost to fire disasters. Contemplate properties worth billions, if not trillions, of Naira annually lost to infernos. As early as we are in this New Year, several fire disasters have been reported in the media. How can successive administration be so wicked as to neglect the country’s fire service? Could it be because it is not a revenue generating agency like the Immigration and Customs services which are also under the Ministry of Interior? Perhaps, it’s because of the establishment of the National Emergency Management Agency.

How well can a badly maintained twenty year old vehicle perform? If the federal fire service is treated with disdain, one does not need to be a soothsayer to know that state fire services will not fare any better. Little wonder when disaster such as building collapse and fire incidences occur, the fire services of construction and oil companies are often called to help out with rescue operations since the decrepit facilities of government fire agencies cannot do much.

About seven years ago, in an article entitled “Nigeria Fire Service and Disaster Management Challenge” published in Daily Independent of November 19, 2009; I said inter alia that “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.” What has changed since then?

In October 2009, the first National Fire Conference was held in Abuja. At the end of the meeting, the following resolutions were reached: The immediate implementation of the report of the committee on the reorganisation 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.

Others include: 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  Fire Services at states and federal levels.

During the conference, it was revealed by the then 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. Seven years down the line, how many of these resolutions have been implemented?

Lip service and lack of political will to do the right thing has been our bane in Nigeria. Talk is cheap they say. Walking the talk remains a daunting challenge. It is commendable that the Buhari administration has decided to strengthen the Federal Fire Service with a lifeline of N4.6bn for the purchase of new fire-fighting equipment. This is a step in the right direction and an exemplary conduct for the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory to emulate. The budgeted sum may be a far cry to what the FFS need but if similar or greater amount is earmarked for the Service in the 2017 budget under consideration it will help to reposition the country’s fire management agency.

It is high time the law setting up the fire service is reviewed to allow for private sector participation. I believe the organised private sector has a role to play and should be properly involved. Nothing stops the country from having licensed private fire service companies where people can pay for efficient service. I challenge the Nigeria Fire Services to wean themselves of the albatross of tardiness and emergency operations. Prevention, as the saying goes, is better than cure and that should be the watchword of our fire services. They need to carry out more public enlightenment campaigns using conventional and non-conventional media platforms on how to forestall fire disasters and steps to take in the event of fire incident before the arrival of firemen. Inspection of public and private buildings for possession of genuine firefighting equipment and compliance with National Fire Safety Code should be made paramount. Defaulters should be severely punished. There is no two ways about it, Nigeria fire services need to be well resourced!

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