Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Containing Fire Disasters in Nigeria

The alarming cases of fire incidents recorded in the country of recent resulting in high percentages of fatalities, injuries and loses, has made the need for awareness on the danger and hazard of fire incidents imperative. In this write up we shall examine fire incidents and planned measures to battle it. Fire incidents are commonplace during harmattan as currently obtained in the country, but, what is of concern is the speed with which the wind of fire is blowing across the country. From the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo in Oyo state, to the plank village inferno in Ebute Meta and the explosion at MRS Petroleum Tank Farm in Tincan Island Ports; to the petrol tanker fire that occurred at Okogbe community in Ahoada-West Local Government Area of Rivers State; to the Abuja Headquarters Office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fire outbreak; to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s hilltop residence in Abeokuta firestorm, it is the same story: deaths, injuries and losses.

A brief review of havoc caused by fire in some selected Nigerian cities in 2012 is necessary to drive home the importance of planning for fire disaster in this country. In 2012 no fewer than 69 people were killed in fire incidents in Abuja and property worth N765 million were also destroyed during the period reported the Federal Fire Service Magazine.

According to the publication, in Rivers State no fewer than 230 persons died while 73 others received various degrees of injuries in 222 recorded fire incidents that occurred in Port Harcourt and other parts of the State in 2012.

In Osun State fire incidents claimed 31 lives and destroyed N227 million worth of property in 2012. In Gombe fire killed 60 people and damaged N790 million worth of property.

Recently, Governor Murktar Ramalan Yero confirmed to newsmen that Kaduna State records 40 fire incidents per month. Alarming?

During the period, the intervention of the fire service saved 9,771 persons from death and property valued at over N2 billion. The various fire stations responded to 558 fire calls with the Federal Fire Service recording the highest fatality rate of 288 deaths, followed by Kano State with 268 persons, while Kebbi and Adamawa recorded no casualties though they experienced 144 and 69 fire incidents respectively.

Ogun State, with 10 fire stations, lost property worth over N26,095,80 while the Federal Fire Service which had 19 fire stations spread across nine state capitals, recorded a loss of property worth N11,687,40.

Year 2011 was not better as no fewer than 990 lives were lost in 7,129 fire incidents in the country and property worth over N53 billion were destroyed during the same period.

 Most of the fire incidents happened in private homes, public buildings, warehouses, markets, sawmills and fuel tankers. The causes of these fires range from candlelight, electrical faults, storage of fuel wrongly to fireworks and other human carelessness. It has been observed in several quarters that the scarcity of petroleum products experienced in the country from time to time which made people to store fuel in their homes and wrong places also contributes to rising fire incidents. Epileptic power supply which also made the people to resort to candle to light their homes is another contributory factor.  Indiscriminate refuse and bush burning is another major factor of fire during the harmattan period. And apart from fires spreading quickly during the harmattan, the season has peculiar health implications like cold and catarrh.

Fire is a basic security problem. Fire as a weapon in the hands of a terrorist or arsonist can bring a promising organization to its knees or deplete national resources through calculated loss provocations. An innocent but careless handler of fire can also cause havoc in the environment and bring untold hardship upon himself and others.

Fire outbreak is an emergency which requires a well coordinated and effective response to reduce injuries, protect assets, and prepare the organization for a smooth and rapid recovery. The impact of fire on families, organizations and society are enormous. Many business organizations that have major fires never recover. They are forced by fire to go out of business for good due to the loss of vital business infrastructures and records. Fire results in, and is a major cause of accidental or untimely death. Injuries and burns from fires can disfigure their victims permanently for life. They become reclusive and do not want to be seen in public. The healing process from serious burns can be painful and traumatic. Property and indirect losses from fires are often so large to be wished.

The fire fighters who put their lives on the line to minimize and if possible eliminate the impacts of fires around us face so many challenges. According to Mrs. Ateme John-Bull of the Rivers State Fire Service some of the challenges faced by the agency include obsolete equipments, poor training of fire fighting officers, and negative attitude of residents to fire fighters as well as indiscriminate refuse and bush burning.

Another worrisome side of fire problem in Nigeria is the volume of false calls. Fire authorities have come to term with the fact that some distress calls are not genuine but mere hoax. For instance, the Rivers State Fire Service received 304 emergency calls in 2012 out of which 82 were false calls. In December 2012 alone, the Federal Fire Service, Lagos State Command recorded 27 incidents of fire outbreaks and 16 false alarms which the agency Public Relations Officer, Mr. Chike Njoku said were made with both good and bad intentions.

So irritating is the incessant attacks on firemen and their trucks by the Nigerian masses for allegedly arriving late at the scenes of most fire incidents.

It is time we begin to appreciate the challenges facing our firemen in their efforts to attend to fire emergencies in this country. Apart from lack of hydrant points to refill their tanks along the traffic, improper direction by the distress callers and absence of access to the scene of fire incident constitute challenge to timely end effective firefighting. Timely and effective response is major key to saving both lives and property from fire and other emergencies.

Nigerians lack basic control and management of inflammable and combustible waste materials. Even, in our industrial set up, this high level of ignorance is demonstrated in the total or near absence of an established or written fire prevention plan. Many organizations do not have a list of potential fire hazards; their proper handling and storage procedures including potential ignition sources and control procedures. They also lack the types of fire prevention equipment and systems necessary to control hazardous fires. Poor housekeeping and careless accumulation of flammable and combustibles waste materials and residues also contributes to several corporate fire outbreaks. 

It is disheartening to note that companies operating in Nigeria are not under any obligation to have an emergency response capability in place. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation sets the minimum standard for response planning. It requires every staff to maintain emergency action and fire prevention plans. The regulation also defined requirements for all emergency response operations and emphasize that the plans must be in writing.  This is where our legislators should focus their attention to put in place appropriate legislation to check increasing loss arising from fire incidents and other emergencies in the country.

The recent call by the Controller-General of the Federal Fire Service, Mr. Olusegun James Okebioru for the Federal Government to give all necessary support for the promulgation of the National Fire Safety Code and the National Building Code (in respect of safety approval for buildings in the country) into law by the National Assembly should be taken seriously considering the rising spate of fire disasters in the country leading to deaths and massive destruction of valuable properties. There is urgent need to re-strategize and take stock with a view to overhauling the entire fire service, increase fire awareness and education and create conducive environment for citizens’ involvement and participation in fire prevention and management.

During the recent flood disasters in many parts of the country, the firemen did not live up to expectation because they lack the necessary equipment and skills to make them efficient. In most serious democracies, the government prepares, equips and motivates firefighters to handle emergencies that result from floods, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, plane crashes, earthquakes, and so on. The prevailing global best practice is for firemen to be the first help line in times of emergency.

This cannot be achieved in the present dispensation wherein the Nigerian firemen are poorly equipped to serve its primary purpose which is fire prevention and management. The fire service in Nigeria was established in 1901 and still operates with an obsolete law, relying on the 1963 Act which entitled a fireman to N10 (ten Naira) hazard allowance.

It is annoying to come to the realization that in a nation of more than 160 million citizens, only 250 fire stations scattered across the country serve the teeming population, while London city alone, with a population of about 8 million, has almost the same number of fire stations.

There is therefore immediate need for a holistic approach to the review of the fire service laws and regulations to cope with emerging trends and global best practice in fire risk control and management. The Federal Government must show due commitment to fire safety by putting in place appropriate statutory framework and organizational structure necessary for a world standard fire department in the country.    

The fire management capability of the fire service must be strengthened to ensure effective delivery in the areas of fire preparedness, awareness campaign, and education.

There is urgent need for increased awareness campaign. The relevant authorities are not doing enough to enlighten the people on fire prevention. The various fire agencies, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the various State Emergency Management Agencies should as a matter of priority carryout enlightenment campaigns among the populace and in schools on fire prevention and management. The fire awareness campaign should be decentralized and extended to embrace the entire segments of the society. The Federal Fire Service should also consider introducing Fire Safety Education into Nigerian primary school curriculum to inculcate fire safety habits in the people from early age.

Apart from the use of the mass media, community leaders, women and youth organizations, CBOs and NGOs should be involved to educate the people on fire prevention and management.

Again, as we march into the harmattan season proper, Nigerians are advised to take precautionary measures against the effects of the harmattan in order to avoid fire occurrences. There is urgent need to improve on our housekeeping culture, check indiscriminate refuse and bush burning, avoid wrong and improper storage of petroleum products, use of candle and firewood to light the house at night and the use of proper electrical appliances to avoid sparks and electrical fires as well as proper storage and handling of inflammable substances.   

We know that times are hard, but, the use of candle and firewood to light the house at night should be discouraged. The tendency to forget such light and go to sleep is there and the result is usually disastrous. Those living in thatch houses in the rural areas and those living in plank houses in the city ghettos need extra caution about the use of firewood or other smoldering objects and heating materials. Such fires should be put out immediately after use.

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