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Fire fighting in Nigeria: A national disgrace

22 April 2015, 10:11 Hussain Obaro

Almost 10 years ago, I was an undergraduate of the University of Ilorin when a fire incident occurred very close to my off-campus residence. The fire started from a spark in public power supply to one of the provision shop at a shopping complex. The fire which started around 5:30am on a Sunday morning saw residents, some of the shop owners and of course sympathizers troop out in large numbers, making frantic efforts to put off the fire to prevent it from doing much damage. All effort came to not as soon as fire got to an electricity generator kept inside the shop. We all stood and looked frustrated and confused as we watched the fire rage from one shop to the other, the fact that most of the shop owners kept their electricity generators inside their shops didn’t help matters either. Though the fire fighting agency was located only a few kilometers away from the scene of the fire. The excuse they gave when they were called upon was that they didn’t have water in their “yard”, so they had to go out in search of water.

It took the fire fighters about 5 hours before they finally came to the scene of the fire, but then the damage had already been done. Most parts of the shopping complex was touched, goods and properties worth millions of naira had been razed by the fire. It took a combine effort of the law enforcement agents and some citizens to save men of the fire fighting agency from the attack of the angry mob who were anything but impressed about the lackadaisical and unbecoming attitudes of the men of the agency. Different parts of this country and even the FCT had had a similar and an unfortunate story to tell about the fire fighting agencies in Nigeria. Market women and traders have lose goods worth billions of naira across this country, families have lose their loved ones and many Nigerians have lose valuable properties to the lookwarmness, misconduct and inefficiency of the fire fighting agencies in Nigeria.

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The earliest known fire fighting agency was formed in ancient Rome by Egnatus Rufus, who used slaves to provide free fire service, but by 24 BC, the emperor Augustus had already established a public fire department composed of about 600 slaves distributed amongst seven fire stations across Rome. The city of Boston established the first public fire fighting department in America in 1679 composed of a highly trained and professional fire fighters. However, in 1906, the very first motorized fire department was organized in Springfield after Knox Automobile of Springfield produced the first modern fire engine a year earlier. The Nigeria federal fire service was established through a legislation of the fire services Act of 1981. The fire services in Nigeria are managed at local authority level with the department of Environment and local government playing an advisory, legislative and policy making role.

The mission of the Federal fire service is; To reduce the loss of lives and properties due to fire outbreak to the barest minimum. Their vision is; To ensure a fire safe Nigeria where all Nigerians and their properties are fire safe through prompt response to fire calls timely. And their mandate is; To build a fire force that Nigeria and Nigerians would be proud of. Contrary to this mandate of the Nigerian fire service, Nigerians can be said to be anything but proud of the fire fighting agency. Whenever there is an event of fire, apart from the fact that one has the shabby services of the GSM networks to contend with, when such calls eventually goes through, the response is either that they do not have water at the moment, that they do not have enough fuel for their vehicles or that their vehicles are down due to one mechanical fault or the other.

Although the primary responsibility of government is the security of lives and properties of citizens, one hardly sees any tangible efforts of government in safe guarding the lives and properties of Nigerians through a deliberate policy investment in the Nigerian fire service in order to prevent and reduce incidences of fire outbreaks nationwide. During the political campaigns that built up to the recently concluded general elections, none of the candidates aspiring for political office, from the president down to the state houses of Assembly made mention of how he\she intends to safe guard the lives and properties of Nigerians from fire. This shows the level of neglect that fire safety has suffered in Nigeria.

Considering the huge amount of money and precious lives which has been lost to fire outbreaks nationwide, there is an urgent need for government at various level to awake from their slumber and give matters of fire fighting the ample priority it deserves. The current decentralization of the fire service in Nigeria which enables the federal government, states and town councils to manage and operate fire fighting agencies has done more harm than good. Hence, there is need for the federal fire service to take full charge of fire fighting in Nigeria. In order to reduce the challenge of proximity, the federal fire service should be established in all of the 774 local government councils and state capitals in Nigeria. Apart from recruiting more staff and retraining existing ones, modern and state of the earth facilities and fire fighting equipments should be procured.

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Like is the case in other parts of the world where issues of fire safety is taken seriously, there should be in place in Nigeria a fire-fighters-club which should be a citizen volunteer organization like the red cross and rotary clubs in which able bodied men and women are encouraged to be members and are trained from time to time on the basics of fire safety and fire fighting as this would go a long way to enhance the job of fire fighting. In many countries like; United State of America, Canada and Japan, the fire department is also often responsible for emergency medical services. Many fire fighters are cross-trained as medical “first responders” to Medical emergencies, providing assessment and treatment until an ambulance can arrive. Many fire fighters also operate ambulance services. There is absolutely nothing wrong in having this kind of arrangement in Nigeria as it would enhance the capacity of our firemen and boost their sense of responsibility and service to humanity.

As a matter of national emergency, massive fire safety education should be carried out nationwide through the use via the local radio stations and TV channels in the local languages that un-educated Nigerians can easily understand and comprehend. Fire safety education should be integrated into the National education curricular from the primary to secondary school level as this would allow young Nigerians to be well informed and educated about fire safety and fire fighting. There should be a deliberate legislation making it mandatory for all markets, shopping malls and industrial establishments to have fire fighting department with anyone or establishment who acts contrary to either be sanctioned, fined or prosecuted accordingly.

I was inside the car with some colleagues on our way to attend a seminar within the premises of the University of Ilorin a couple of months ago and suddenly a vehicle about a kilometer ahead caught fire. Within few minutes about twenty vehicles had pulled over to catch a glimpse of what was going on ahead as some of the students of Unilorin where busy shouting “Fire extinguisher!” “Fire extinguisher!!”  It was sad that none of the twenty vehicles that had pulled over had a fire extinguisher to help out. We all stood and watched the car burn to ashes. Beyond encouraging and enforcing vehicle owners to get their vehicles insured with registered insurance companies, the FRSC needs to up their game on the enforcement of fire extinguishers by all categories of vehicles in order to enhance fire safety.

- MyNews24

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