By PETER AGBA KALU
He did not set out for a career in the Federal Fire Service. As an Engineer Olusegun Okebiorun, present controller general of the agency had his mind focused on more ‘dignifying’ and ‘rewarding’ things. The last thing on his mind was a career in a ‘downtrodden’ office as fire fighter.
But he was drafted against his will, by a force he could not resist. An act of God, he says. Today, every of his pulse breathes it. He talks about his job with great passion. He believes his life would have been empty if he had missed the opportunity to serve in the para-military organisation of the Ministry of Interior, established by an Act of Parliament to ensure the safety of lives and property of Nigerians as contained in the Federal Fire Service Charter. He spoke to Aspire outlining the thrills and challenges of the service.
You are a qualified engineer, how did you find yourself in the fire service?
That is a surprising question, because many people don’t even know that fire is an engineering field. It is an engineering field whereby you can take professional career from the level of a fireman to the level of an engineer to the level of even a professor in fire safety. So, fire is not just what we think it is. It is much more than that. Fire is engineering. It comprises all the sciences – chemistry, physics, biology and everything you can think of in science. Everything is in fire service – architecture, building, etc. These are all things encompassed in the study of fire safety and fire protection.
So, for you to be a fire protection man, you must be a fire protection engineer. In this case, you are talking of design of fire safety protection system in buildings. These are mathematically-based designs, and so if you’re not engineering-based or mathematically-inclined, you are not likely to be able to do such a programme. So, fire is engineering on its own and it comprises all the various sections of engineering.
You mentioned fire safety design. Do Nigerians obtain your permit before erecting their buildings?
People don’t do that and there is no law against it. But now, we have come up with the requisite regulation for people to obtain fire safety plan when they want to construct a building, or rather when they want to construct an estate.
It will soon come into operation I hope before the end of this year, such that people must take fire safety approval before their plan approval can be undertaken within the local government or state government environment. It is going to be compulsory. And if you don’t do it, you’re going to be penalised.
Now, that is about individual buildings. What about government and commercial buildings, you mean they were not obtaining this approval?
They were not obtaining, and those buildings that do not comply with the standards, have to retrofit the buildings. We give them a limited time to retrofit them because it is not a thing you can do in one night.
It may take about 12 months to retrofit such things, it might take about six months, it might take about 18 months. So, we will give them the opportunity to retrofit those things within a limited time.
And incidentally, we already have a Federal Government approval to commence action on this and we are trying to gather momentum in that direction. I believe that by early next year, we will start the formal enforcement in Federal Government buildings. We are commencing with Federal Government buildings.
We are also working in tandem with the state fire services. We invited them once for training on it so that they would be able to carry out that function effectively in their localities.
Because the issue of fire safety/protection is mathematically-based and not everybody would be able to do that, we organised a training for the state Fire Services so that, at least, we can build up their skills in that area of design and their approval.
When you people intercede or when you’re called, do you charge a fee?
No, people don’t pay. All over the world, the issue of fire response is never paid for. But people pay for any activities before the emergency. Anything we do before the emergency, you will have to pay for it. For example, if you want us to inspect your building and then we give you a certificate of fitness you must pay for that certificate.
If you want to train your men -if you have a company and you have some fire fighters there you want to train, you bring them to us, and you pay for it. But when emergency occurs, you do not pay.
Which means you are supposed to be a top income-earner for the Federal Government?
Well, top income-earner, may be not. Or may be because I have highlighted areas we can make money for the government. The major area is that of plan approval, which has not been in operation yet. But it will generate money for the system.
What is your work force like?
The Federal Fire Service has a workforce of about 879 men.
In Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and …
Not the whole federation?
Not the whole federation
You don’t have the total workforce for the whole federation?
We don’t have the total workforce in the whole federation
The state fire services are not directly under us.
What of the local governments?
Local governments don’t even have fire services.
Is it supposed to be so?
It is not supposed to be so. We’re working in the direction of changing the status quo. We believe that the local governments the Federal Government have to partake in the area of fire safety in the country because it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that lives and property of people in the country are safe. So, we have to fashion out a roadmap to achieve this objective. I believe that in the next two years, all the three tiers of government will be part of this progress.
What motivated you into making a career in the fire service?
Well, my coming into the Fire Service is virtually the act of God. I never dreamt of coming into fire service because from the outside I’ve always seen, like every other person, the Fire Service as a downtrodden environment.
But there was a reorganisation in the Fire Service in the 90s, and under the Ministry of Works and Housing, the recommendation was that the Fire Service as of then did not have the requisite personnel to lead it. Requisite in terms of basic education; requisite in terms of training. So, it was recommended that some middle level and top level engineers be employed. So, government then recommended that some professionals – engineers, architects etc should be moved from the Ministry of Works to the Fire Service then. And I was one of those people picked. Initially, I resisted it but like I said, it is an act of God. Eventually I had to come to the Fire Service. Then, I found out that Fire Service is the right place for me to have been from the word go, because I should be able to make my own contribution as an engineer. It was a place that had been abandoned by so many engineers.
So, we came in as the first set of people from the ministry and since then we have been trying our best to ensure that we bring up the status of the service. But you know, bringing up the status is a lot of stress. You have to write a lot of memos to ensure that one proposal or the other goes through. I think we are matching towards the end of the tunnel. I can see the bright light there and I hope that we shall definitely see that light.
A lot of people complain about your service, particularly lateness. They say your men only arrive after the fire might have done the damage.
The issue of fire service officers coming late is a very serious one. And it is not out of the inefficiency of men of the service, but rather, it is caused by lack of requisite facilities. If the nearest fire station is very far from your house how long would it take that engine to get there? I don’t know where you live and how far the nearest fire station is to your own house, but I can assure you it is not very close to your own house.
That’s true; and you also have problems of traffic bottlenecks and all that.
So, it would take the fire engine a long time to traverse that route if there is an emergency. That time could be about 10 minutes; it could be about 20 minutes; it could even be more. And when fire rages for 10 minutes, I’m sure a major part of the building is damaged. Another problem that we have is that the number of fire stations are not adequate. Where we need about 10 fire stations you might find only one or two.
Can you compare the service we have here with what is in other parts of the world?
If you compare Nigeria with many other countries, we are still lagging behind seriously. Let us look at the advanced world first before we come down to our locality. A city like New York had about 1,469 fire stations in 2011. Nigeria has about 255.
The whole of Nigeria?
The whole lot of Nigeria. And some of these are not functional. Most of the equipment we have are dilapidated. So, we really need to form a synergy between government and the private sector towards ensuring we fast-track our development in the area of fire safety development. Otherwise, the engine of development of commerce, of industry in the year 2020 will be jeopardized.
When you become developed, the development creates hazards. It creates serious emergencies. There is the notion that fire is a by-product of affluence. The more technologically developed you are, the more affluent you are; the more industrially developed you are, the more the likelihood that you are going to have fire. You are going to have chemical explosions; you’re going to have some other problem that can develop from there. And so, we also need to develop the fire services as we develop other areas, otherwise, the issue of complementation will not be there.
If the fire service is not there and you develop another area, the whole thing you have developed could be razed in one night. And then you’re back to square one.
So, I think it makes sense. It is a case of pennywise, pound foolish if you do not invest in fire service. Your investment in it is not a loss. And you see, incidentally because fire service does not generate much fund compared with some other agencies, inland revenue, immigration service, the customs, funding of the fire service does not really impress most governments. But we have forgotten that one, property saved is just like funds generated in the economy. It is virtual fund generated into the economy. Then lives, you can’t even qualify lives. Even if it is only one life that is saved, it means a lot. In 2010 alone, we lost about 997 lives.
Yes, fire and collapsed buildings. You know when you have a collapsed building the people that are trapped – some of them might have died immediately, some of them might be there alive. Chances are that they would survive if aid gets to them on time. So, we have been able to analyse all these details and we know that at the end of the day, if we improve on the fire services, it is to the benefit of the whole nation.
Apart from fire burning a house and collapsed buildings what other emergencies are you people involved in?
We also attend to first aid response. Usually, we do these in respect of emergencies, but we can go beyond that point…
When you go to a scene of fire…
The first thing we do is to rescue people…
Do you go with your medical personnel?
You have some medical professionals?
We just started building that up, so, we have a few of them in the system. And we intend to get more in the nearest future. We now have a few ambulances also. So, we can respond to emergencies, rescue people and take them to the nearest hospital. Medical emergencies by the fire service extends to the point whereby anybody with a medical problem in the home can call the fire service. If you fell down in the house and you are the only one you can call the fire service. Even if you are not the only one, somebody can call the fire service and the fire service is supposed to respond. If you’re in the kitchen and you have oil explosion, you can call the fire service. That is how it is done everywhere in the world. If you are involved in a road accident, you can call the fire service. That is why I’m trying to ensure that the fire service is spread across the length and breath of this country.
When there is an accident anywhere in the country, there should be a fire service station close to that area that can respond within a limited time to that emergency.
In the national rescue plan what is the role of the fire service?
The national rescue plan dictates that the fire service is the real agency in most of our emergencies. Most emergencies, whether fire, flood, rescue operations, road traffic accidents, the fire service has a leading role in terms of the operational aspect.
But unfortunately enough the facilities are not on grand for them to play that leading role. That is the reason I believe that if we develop our fire services it will go a long way towards the service performing its role to the benefit of the country.
The agency is reportedly planning to build 412 fire stations. How many personnel or how much employment are you going to provide?
That would generate about 25,000 jobs. And these are employments that are positive to the nation. It is not just employing people for the sake of employing Nigerians. No. These are people that would be employed; they would have a job to do and it is going to be a positive one.
And when you’re talking about 25,000 people being employed, you’re talking about no fewer than 75,000 Nigerians benefiting from it because each person will have at least a wife, a husband and at least one child. I’m putting that as the minimum base but it could be up to 100,000 or more.
So, it would depopulate the unemployment market. It would reduce the crime rate and cut down governments’ costs on crime prevention as well as have effect on the industrialisation of the country. If the fire safety within the nation is high, it would give people a level of assurance that when they do investment, their investments would not go down the drain in one night.
So, when you have all these things on ground, you are preventing crimes from happening, you’re encouraging investors and you are also reducing the poverty level of the nation.
When there is fire outbreak, whether it your personal property or that belonging to government, it is our commonwealth. But if we can prevent these things from happening, definitely we would be conserving our wealth.
Is there property insurance against fire outbreak in this country?
There is a law that all buildings must be insured. The insurance companies are trying to enforce that but I am sure not all buildings in this country are insured. There is a need under that provision that the funds that cover the insurance (about 0.25 per cent) should be reserved for fire service development.
We are trying to see how we can access that fund through NAICOM, although it is a very small money. (0.25 per cent) is about N2, 500 per N1 million. That is too small.
Is that not an archaic law?
Well, we are looking at all the areas of that law. It is not too archaic because it is not too long ago that this thing came into being. But I think there should be an improvement on it. I hope that if it is reviewed it would go a long way towards assisting the fire service.
And one of the things the Federal Government has done is that the fire service men are insured. I want to call on state fire services to emulate it. They should insure their fire fighters. Every fire fighter must be insured because this is a man who surrenders his life. When others are running out he is running in to go and save the lives of other people. He is not a stupid man; he is not a fool. But because of the job he has taken up, he has to go in there when others are running out. So, I think their lives ought to be insured. All over the world, fire fighters die every day because of the risks of the job. They die. In America, if you look at the fatality rate, every day people die and a lot of fire fighters die every day. Look at the 9/11, about 233 fire fighters died on that spot. So, it is a risky job.
This is about your own whole workforce dying in one duty?
No, it won’t happen. We are not going to die.
If the risk is too much, Nigerians won’t even come close.
That is why we talk about insurance. This is a risky job and we have to really compensate the men for doing it. Now that we are saying that educated people should come into the system we should look at the job of a fire fighter from the angle of the risks he carries, not just as a civil servant. Taking them as civil servants will not be encouraging. At the federal level, government has done something in that direction. Fire fighters at the federal level are not on the same scale with people in the ministries. So, I think all the three tiers of governments ought to ensure that their fire fighters are packaged in terms of remuneration, they are given adequate training and then they provide the facilities that they need for them to do their job.
And if after all these things are done they still cannot perform, you fire the person. It is as simple as that.