August 20, 2018

Memo to the President-Elect on Fire Disasters by Fidelis Ogbogoh

Memo to the President-Elect on Fire Disasters by Fidelis Ogbogoh

 

The purpose of this memo is to bring to the attention of Your Excellency the failure of previous administrations to take fire prevention and fire-fighting seriously, in spite of their awareness that Fire Service delivery is a vital component of internal security. The issue of safety of life and property which, ordinarily, should occupy a major plank in the programmes and plans of our governments, at all levels, has also, not attracted enough public debate in Nigeria. Successive federal and state governments simply have not shown sufficient concern and commitment to fire prevention and fire-fighting in this country. The result is that vast estates and huge public buildings are daily ravaged by preventable fire, while those who should take the bold decisions and say ‘enough is enough’ appear to lack the political will to protect the nation and its commonwealth from wanton destruction by fire.

Fire Outbreak at Mansard Place Victoria Island
Fire Outbreak at Mansard Place Victoria Island

 

I will give a small but interesting narrative: When the multimillion naira mansion of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, was gutted by fire in Abeokuta, one person sustained serious injuries in the effort to put out the fire. Interacting with newsmen shortly afterwards, Obasanjo expressed appreciation to God and even added that, luckily, the fire did not affect the entire building. Singing excitedly in yoruba language, the former President said: “Ile Obasanjo to jo ewalobu kun, ile Obasanjo to jo ewalobu kun, eyin Press emawibe, ewalobu kun”. Translated, this means:“fire that gutted Obasanjo’s house has only made it more beautiful, you pressmen sing along with me”.

Let me quickly add, and I say this 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. Its heat alone can kill. Room temperatures in a fire situation can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level, and rises to 600 degrees Fahrenheit at eye level. Inhaling this super-hot air will scorch the lungs. This 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 flashoverWe must never forget that The Twin-tower Building 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. Simple! I should mention that 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, the then Vice President of the Federal Republic, now the outgoing President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, observed that the Federal government was aware of the enormity of the challenges facing Disaster Management Agencies and specifically said: “Disasters threaten national development, poverty reduction initiatives and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals of government. While Nigeria has been spared the occurrence of major disasters, with devastating socio-economic consequences, as witnessed in other parts of the world, we cannot afford to be complacent”  That was our Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as he then was.

 

Fire outbreak at Tankers' Farm
Fire outbreak at Tankers’ Farm

Seven years after, the then Vice President, now President of Nigeria, wrote those beautiful lines, the facts on ground show that no single value has been added to  disaster management in Nigeria. Instead, it seriously nosedived to 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, using 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 in Nigeria. 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 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, the Honourable Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Patrick Moro, realised the absence of a national road map for effective and efficient fire 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 in Nigeria 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 a press conference before the inauguration of the ministerial committee, Comrade Moro noted that: “Fire Service delivery is a vital component of our internal security – bothering on safety of lives and property – and Nigeria cannot pride herself to be secure until there is a reasonable guarantee of the safety of lives, property and the environment”. Again no CHANGE has occurred in the Federal and States Fire Services.

 

As I write this, Nigeria has a total number of Two Hundred and Fifty Two (252) ill-equipped and poorly manned fire stations covering a geographic area of Nine Hundred and Nine Thousand, Eight Hundred and Ninety (909,890) square kilometers in Seven Hundred and Seventy Four (774) Local Government Areas. In effect, one fire station takes care of three Local Governments with an average population of over 450,000 Nigerians living in a space area of approximately 2,637 square km. At the very minimum, Nigeria needs one thousand, one hundred and forty-four (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 functional Fire Service for the protection of our national wealth.

Fire-outbreak

How much is human life worth in Nigeria? This question is necessary considering the spate of avoidable catastrophes in which scores of lives of our people are terminated and billions of naira worth of goods and property destroyed yearly. Fire awareness in Nigeria is low. As a result, fire disasters have become so incessant and frequent that it now occurs almost on a daily basis across our country without any serious intervention. For first responders to respond 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. Recently, the Kano State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Alhaji Abdullahi  Minkaila, and his family died in an inferno when their home was engulfed by fire. Kano State 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, knowhow and robust experiences for the roles assigned to them. Today, the Federal Fire Service, as well as State Fire Services, lack appropriate training facility for fire-fighters (officers and men). The National Fire Academy under construction since 1999 at Sheda, Abuja, has been abandoned, with nothing happening at the site. The security at our airports are improving daily based on recommendations, but the recommendations of several commissions for improved fire security at our airports are yet to be implemented. Nigeria still does not have a single aircraft training simulator for the training of NAA firefighters. Ninety percent 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, in the republic of Cameroon. 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. Around 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?  As I write this, 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. The 2005 Presidential Committee for the Re-organization of our Fire Service was followed by the 2012 Ministerial Committee for the Re-structuring of the same Fire Service. Yet, no re-organisation or re-structuring was allowed to occur. I hope that the wind of CHANGE that is around the corner would also blow towards our fire services, to my mind, are in dire need of remarkable 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.”

 

  • Engr. (Dr.) Fidelis Ogbogoh, C.Eng.FNSE; M.I.FireE, MON was the Comptroller- General, Federal Fire Service (Rtd); Member, Presidential Committee For the Re-organization of Fire Service (2005) and Member, Ministerial Committee For the Restructuring of Fire Service (2011).

 

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