The Comptroller-General, Federal Fire Service, Mr Olusegun Okebiorun, in this interview with GABRIEL EWEPU and CHIBUNMA UKWU, speaks on the challenges facing the fire-fighting agency and the efforts it is making to deliver on its mandate.
Sir, we will like to know more about your organisation, the activities you engaged in and the challenges that you face?
The Federal Fire Service, by its statute, has the responsibility for the safety of lives and property , and that entails prevention of disaster from happening and our ability to respond if the disaster happens. That has been the mandate of the service since 1963. Of late, there is an oversight function which we are deemed to be carrying out and that relates to the regulation of the states' fire service in Nigeria, and we have set in motion the machinery towards that regulation.
To make that effective, we set up the National Council on Fire about three years ago, and the council has been working along with the states' fire service to ensure that we come together and deliberate on issues that affect national security as it relates to life and fire safety. We have been working excellently together.
We have also come up with some standards which we expect all the states' fire service to follow, and in 2011 one of the things that we really worked at was to beef up the capabilities of the fire fighters in the country in terms of training.
At the time, there was no school where we could train fire fighters the exact way we really wanted. Though the Fire Academy was undergoing construction, we had already commenced training. Most likely, we will commence construction this year of one fire post at the academy.
In the next few years, if the facilities are certified as very good, then we can boast that we can train other people from other parts of the world in Nigeria. In terms of human capacity development, we have been able to send some of our men abroad to develop their capabilities in their specialised areas of fire fighting and prevention, in order to train others.
Last year, we had challenges as there were bombings in some parts of the country. Again, the Federal Fire Service was able to respond within the areas that were affected. In Abuja, we responded to those emergencies very promptly even though we still require some upliftment in terms of equipment, but within the limits of what we have, we were able to respond and the statistics is there that, last year, we were able to respond to about 150 calls, including bomb explosions, building collapse, fire outbreaks, and so many others.
One thing that is paramount about fire fighting is that whenever fire breaks out, something must be destroyed and our purpose is to ensure that the extent of that destruction is limited by responding promptly and carrying out fire operations as expected.
This we have been able to do to a large extent in year 2011 and in this year 2012. We are moving forward to ensure that the capability of the fire fighters in the country is also improved upon.
The number of fire stations are grossly inadequate in Nigeria. In places where we are supposed to have about 20 fire stations, probably we have about three; this makes it difficult for fire men to respond as expected. These areas we are trying to look into and finding ways to proffer solutions. In addition to that, there is also another aspect of the job that we really want to intensify in 2012.
It is in the area of compliance with the fire code in the construction of buildings. In the past, we have not been enforcing the Fire Code that are expected to be complied with in the construction of buildings but, this year, it is one of those things that we are embarking upon to ensure that every building that will be erected in this country will be certified by the fire service, either at the state level or at the federal level, to ensure that they incorporate safety designs just like they have electrical structures in the drawings.
We will also look into the old buildings that are supposed to comply with certain parts of the regulations and if they are not complying, we will advise them within a limited time to retrace their steps and comply with the safety standards.
Concerning private fire fighting departments, like that of the National Security and Civil Defence Corps that regulate the activities of private guards. Is your organisation intending to encourage the private sector to set up fire fighting companies which you can regulate and which will also reduce your organisation’s burden?
We already have guidelines in place to regulate private fire departments. It was launched about a year and six months ago. We are trying to go round to ensure that those existing fire departments comply with the laid -down regulations. Encouraging people to set up fire stations is different from encouraging people to set up a private guard services.
When you establish a private guard company, your objective is to start making profit, but when you establish a fire station, making a profit is not easy. Thus, fire stations are established for humanitarian purposes and directed towards the objective of protecting our environment. If you have a building there is the need to also have a fire department to protect your investment, and it is cost-efficient.
I strongly believe that we really need to look inward and develop our fire service at all levels. I had said earlier that the number of fire stations within a particular area will determine how quickly they respond to fire and any other emergency.
If there is an emergency somewhere and fire service station is four kilometres away from the place, they cannot be at the scene of fire outbreak within five minutes; also, congestion on the road obstructs our movement.
You mentioned congestion; what is your organisation doing with the relevant authorities to either widen the street to ensure free road movement for firefighters whenever there is need?
It is not under the purview of the fire service to do that, because every organisation has its own responsibilities. Government is trying to improve on the traffic situation as some intra-city roads are being expanded. Notwithstanding, all these issues that we are looking at are long standing and cannot be sorted out in a day - it has to be gradual. Look at the fire service, it is long overdue for total overhauling.
The Federal Capital Administration is trying its best in that direction. However, one thing that is essential in terms of traffic is that people should be enlightened to know that when the fire engine is moving, they must give the right of way.
How about the issue of welfare of your officers and men, because there is the belief that poor welfare is affecting the performance of your men. What are the measures being taken to boost the morale of your staff?
The government is doing a lot in that direction. Our take-home pay can take us home and bring us back to the office. Again, the level of risk in the job is high, and in that regard, the government has approved life insurance for my officers and men as every other public servant in this country. In addition to that, we have other welfare packages.
What is the relationship between the state commands and the headquarters; how do you coordinate it?
The state Fire Service Commands are autonomous. The only platform where we come together is at the National Council of Fire Service, which is the apex level. It is at this level that we discuss our problems, policy matters, and also formulate policies that will really enhance safety in the country.
On the issue of national security, how prepared is your organisation as regards the issue of bomb attacks? Are there strategies on ground to tackle these challenges?
Well, we are prepared for such challenges. As a matter of fact, we are proactive, because we are always expecting more serious scenarios. Thus, we train our men more in the direction of preparedness, so that if it happens, we can respond appropriately. But we are not praying for it.
Sir, how do you work collaborate with other rescue organisations?
We interface at the platform of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which is the coordinator of all the rescue agencies. We attend seminars together, which are being organised by NEMA. At that level, we try to synergise and see how we can perform collectively and better when there is an emergency.
Does your organisation get enough funding from the federal government, and is it enough to enable it execute its mandate?
Where we are today is not where we were some five years ago, which means there is improvement on funding the service. Though it might not be enough to meet the challenges of the day, but efforts are also being made to ensure that we get better funding. Funding should not necessarily come only from the government. An organisation in Lagos collaborated with us in providing a fire station. These are the things we expect all private and corporate organisations to do so as to help the government and help themselves.
In terms of public enlightenment on fire consciousness, how much are you doing in that direction?
The service is doing its best to enlighten Nigerians. For instance, we are running a public enlightenment programme on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). We would have expected that people put it on reminder that programmes on fire is broadcast on the television on Fridays.
We also have the quarterly magazines which we publish. We go as far as to the markets, schools and residents. Unfortunately, people care less about issues concerning fire prevention in this country.
What are the organisation’s plans to establish more fire stations?
We have the programme on ground to establish fire stations across the country, because, like I said earlier, the fire stations we have in this country are grossly inadequate and it will take the effort of the federal, the state and the local governments to synergise to bring up the level of the stations in this country to the level that we can protect the lives and property of the people in the country.
We have made the proposal in that direction and I think that, when it scales through and gets executed, the country will greatly benefit from that action. If you compare the level of stations that we have in Nigeria with other parts of the world, you will find out that it us grossly inadequate. Even Ghana has more facilities than Nigeria, let alone other advanced countries like New York, London, Hong Kong.
For example, London has about 233 fire stations. In New York, they have about 1,469 fire stations but in Nigeria we have fewer than 250 in the whole federation. So when you compare these, you will find out that we have a very long way to go, but we can also get there if we make attempt to move.
Thus with improvement on annual basis in this direction, I believe that, before the year 2020, we would have been one of the countries that would boast of a robust fire service in the world.