interviewBy James Uwem
The Nigeria Fire Service (NFS) expectedly has not lived up to its mandate; a test case has been its inactiveness in the recent flood disasters in the country. The Controller-General of the NFS, Engr. Olusegun James Okebiorun, in this interview with JAMES UWEM, says the agency has not been given the necessary equipment and training to deliver on its mandate.
As an emergency and rescue agency, how did Fire Service intervene in the recent flooding across the country?
NEMA's warnings helped the Fire Service to be anticipatory of the flooding. But you see, preparedness is not a thing you do overnight; if you hear that flooding will take place in two weeks, you can't start preparing in only two weeks. Being the leading agency to contend with emergencies, government ought to have effectively equipped and readily trained the Fire Service.
However, we did our best. We sent a crew from Abuja to Lokoja to conduct rescue with the few facilities that we have, and they were able to support all other agencies as well, in the course of the rescuing people who were trapped, using boats, or ropes for those hanging on trees. We even had the constraint of not even having an operational boat; we had to borrow to do the rescue.
Fire men in Nigeria are not adequately trained in that aspect. You don't just take people to a disaster place and say: 'go and rescue people'; they have to be effectively trained. The National Fire Academy in Sheda, Kwali, Abuja, is not developed to an extent of training the firemen on flood rescue. Upgrading the school to such status is one of our major plan for next year. We will have something like a big pool to train divers and swimmers.
Generally, we need to re-evaluate the way we manage our disaster in the country. We hadn't experienced flood of such magnitude before, and the fact that it had not happened before does not mean it will never happen. We must learn from this and go back to the drawing board to see that we prepare for other occurrences.
Who should be doing the preparation?
All concerned agencies and individuals as well. In flood disaster, the Fire Service takes the leading role, but the truth is that not one of the stations is preparedly equipped to handle flood disasters. We don't even have the equipment and material to respond to fire, not to talk of flood. Kogi State has only one building that looks like a fire station, and the entire state has about 50 men, with only 12 in Lokoja; so what kind of rescue can they make? Fire Service is not all about just fire, but all other disasters like flood, earthquake, air crash, all sorts of disasters.
The fire service is the leading agency in fighting or contending with these disasters. It pains me because we have, through the assistance of the Minister of Interior, made proposals on what would have strengthened the Fire Service, but not much attention is given to us. For instance, we may say we need about N3.5 billion and only about N600 million may be given; expectedly, all our activities and purchases must fall within that N600 million.
Since the Fire Service has been abandoned for a long while its own problem becomes critically large. If the Fire Service had been adequately taken care off over the years, little monies would have relatively solved some problems. Unless government approaches the issue passionately with a lot of political will, we can't make progress. Talking about Vision 20:2020, it means even the Fire Service should be among the first 20 fire stations in the world, but we are very far from it.
Ideally, every local government ought to have a functional fire station, but Kaduna, Edo, Abia , Enugu, Port Harcourt, over 30 states, have only one fire station. To protect Kaduna, the state should have at least 15 fire stations. Lagos, though they are trying having about 20 stations, with its population, it requires as much as 200 fire stations. In Abuja, the minimum should be 25. So, now, with the little number we have, when there is fire, we respond from a very distant place, and before we get there, the house is fully burnt.
Why can't Nigeria operate private fire outfits?
Yes, we have set the guideline for private operations, just like private security firms. Incidentally, people have not been showing interest because it does not look profitable. However, there are departmental fire services for some institutions like NNPC, Central Bank, Julius Berger, etc, but for individuals to invest is not practicable for now as it is abroad.
What are you doing in the direction of training?
I am planning to sent some people to Singapore , but it is expensive, in fact, there is a proposal to send just about four people to the UK, and that worth about N30 million. If we have the facilities in our fire academy, we train then here and save money. Even the oil companies and others canalso make use of our training school,
You sometime raised the issue of obsolete colonial laws...
We are in the process of reviewing the law, but if I may say that our job is not seriously impaired by the old act. We only have challenges in the area of penalties. Ideally, what we need most are the facilities and equipment. When you talk about response to emergency, it is the function of time; if you don't get there on time, people will die.
The essence of our existence is to respond spontaneously, meaning we must not be far where incidence happened; that means that we need more fire stations. If a state has only one fire station, if there is a fire at the local government, it means the firemen will have to respond from the state capital. So for us to be effective, we need to have good spread; most of our cities have developed over time but the fire service has not developed. It is still where it was in the 50's.
How do you collaborate with other rescue agencies, like the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA)?
NEMA is only a coordinating agency it is a high time we have a clear cut on who does what in Nigeria. All over the world, fire service is the major disaster agency. Even in Nigeria, by law, the Act establishing the Fire Service placed it as the lead agency in search and rescue, fire disaster and building collapse.
But government in its own wisdom has chosen to give so much attention and funds to NEMA; that cannot be questioned but what is imperative is that government should know that Fire Service is the leading agency responsible for disaster management and should fund the Service effectively.
What future road map do you envisage in the shortest future for the service.
We should certainly have an improved fire service, we have set the machinery on motion, and part of it is that we will be training locally in our training school. Our effort would be concentrated on fire and disaster prevention, rather than interventions; emergencies will not occur if you do a good prevention.
What is responsible for the low level of advocacy and awareness on preventive as well as safety measure during fire incidences?
The orientation, mindset and attitude of Nigerians towards fire or emergency are very poor. Most times we write to several organisations that we want to come and give orientation on fire safety measures to their staff free of charge, but they decline and refuse us from doing that. We run television programmes, but when people see that it is a fire programme, they won't like to give their attention to watching them.
This year, we have run television programmes; if Nigerians had listened, they would have been able to gain tremendously. Today if you ask which number to call when there is an emergency, people don't know; not that we have not enlightened them, but people have been apathetic, feeling that fire education is not necessary, and praying that it will never happen to them.
But it can happen to anybody at anytime and it will always happen. Though there is no national emergency number for now, but we advise that people go to the nearest fire stations to them and get these numbers. In Abuja, the number is 08032003557.