Nigeria: Deadly Fire Outbreaks - Attitudes Must Change

12 November 2019

According to the "World Life Expectancy Report" in 2016 Nigeria ranked first in the World for deaths by fire. The reason for this isn't the number of fires per se, but the absence of sensitisation of fire prevention and escape techniques. In Nigeria there is a marked lack of smoke alarms, fire blankets, clearly marked escape routes, fire extinguishers, and regular fire drills in markets, offices and blocks of residential flats.

Regular fire drills in schools, offices and markets will help to expose any inadequate fire prevention, detection and escape techniques. Of course, all of these will make no difference if the fire is in an oil pipeline. On October 18th 1998 a pipeline explosion occurred in the community of Jesse. Although the cause of the explosion has been debated the 1,082 recorded deaths earned the Jesse fire the distinction of being the deadliest pipeline explosion in Nigeria. Since then fire outbreaks in markets and urban areas of Nigeria have assumed alarming proportions. The causes of such fires include erratic power surges, illegal electrical connections, improper electrical fittings, substandard electrical materials, and use of indoor generators.

Effective fire safety management is based upon enforcing fire prevention legislation which will enforce the identification of all the potential risks associated with the various premises and effectively carry out an assessment of the adequacy of the measures provided. In addition to the problems of markets, offices and residential buildings, the fact that the bulk of petroleum products are transported across dilapidated roads means that fuel tanker explosions are becoming increasingly common. The most common factor in fire outbreaks in Nigeria is the poor responsiveness of the Nigeria Fire Service who have a well-earned a reputation for habitually arriving late at the scene of the fire without sufficient equipment to solve the problem.

Ill-equipped fire services have been known to turn up at the scene without any water or fire suppressant chemicals! According to the Red Cross once a raging fire has started people have only two minutes at most to make their escape. Such escapes can be made easier by effective fire safety management. With the recent outbreaks of fire in Lagos, Onitsha and Benin it would appear as if it has become necessary to remind both State and Federal government of their responsibility to protect not only lives but also property. From the Federal Inland Revenue Service Headquarters in Abuja to Balogun Market in Lagos, Onitsha Market in Anambra State to petrol tankers in Ibadan fire outbreaks are becoming an uncontrollable phenomenon nationwide.

Indeed, there has been a substantial increase in the incidences of petrol tanker and market fires. Fire outbreak has been identified as the leading cause of loss of lives in Nigerian markets. In Benin City the famous Santana Market which recently suffered severe damage from fire is being relocated. In Anambra State Onitsha is the nerve centre of the State and the South-East in general. It's home to one of the largest markets in West Africa.

The State government rakes in billions in taxes from commercial activities in the City, yet the people of Onitsha have been relying on the Delta State Government Fire Service in Asaba. Successive governments have not been able to use the internally generated revenue to provide adequate amenities.

Roads are in a deplorable condition and public utilities such as water and electricity are virtually non-existent and despite the State Fire Service having been comatose for years, everybody is blaming them for non-responsiveness to the fire outbreaks and distress calls. In truth Fire Service responsiveness can be compared to the sluggish response of the police when informed of armed robberies in progress. The underfunding of both agencies is a national disgrace. Most fire stations do not have the basic facilities let alone fire-fighting vehicles. The Nigerian Fire Service is one of those agencies which exist on paper only and on many occasions when help comes during a fire outbreak it comes from private organisations who lend their equipment to the public.

The Fire Service Act of 1963 has not been reviewed since and as such the fire Service is the only statutory organization established by law to undertake or render services related to the outbreak of fire. All 36 States of the Federation along with the Federal Capital territory have fire services. There is a growing belief that since the government of the day doesn't consider funding the fire-fighting services to be a priority, they should privatise operations. The fact that the Federal Government is struggling to finance their deficit budget has been made clear by Minister of Works Babatunde Fashola who has severally complained that there are insufficient funds to carry out much needed road repairs, even when such repairs have been budgeted for and announced publicly. The continued neglect of the fire service is a neglect of the citizenry. It's fair to ask why is the Chief Fire Officer not given as much protocol and attention as compared to the high-profile heads of Customs, Immigration and Police?

There can be little doubt that the fire service in Nigeria needs general overhauling, re-engineering and repackaging. In developed nations the fire-fighting services carry out many functions. They are present whenever a building collapses, planes trains or cars crash, and are an integral part of emergency services. Fire-fighting is a collective responsibility and the first line of dense is adherence to regulations. Being fire conscious is not a Nigerian trait. Its quite clear that regular outbreaks of disastrous fires will only abate when both government and citizens change their attitude and approach to the issue.

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