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The minister and the fire chief

There was interesting news out of Abuja the other day.

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There was interesting news out of Abuja the other day.

The Minister of the Federal Capital Territory had gone to commission newly refurbished fire trucks belonging to the Abuja Fire Service. Everything was proceeding swimmingly.Nice speeches, abundant photo opportunities.

As the event was winding to a close, the Minister decided, apparently on an impulse, to inspect the fire trucks and their equipment. He was keen to confirm their state of readiness. Fire Services, after all, were an essential part of Emergency Services everywhere. In a modern city, the promptness and effectiveness of the Fire Services outfit was the difference between life and death, literally. The role of the New York Fire Service Department in the 9-11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers made the officers into folk heroes. More recently, if less dramatically, the London City Fire Services had played a role in trying to ameliorate the fire disaster at the Grenfell Towers.

This ‘inspection’ was clearly not in the script, and things began to go wrong quickly. As he got into a truck, he observed it had no air conditioning. He asked for oxygen, a crucial necessity for the use of victims, but also for the firemen in difficult situations.

By now the Director of the unit, who was his host, was getting very uncomfortable indeed. There was no oxygen.

The Minister pulled out one of the drawers. It was meant to house drugs and other supplies. There was nothing.

The Minister, now thoroughly miffed, requested for a demonstration of fire-fighting action. There was no water in the tank.

That would not be the end of the story. He asked for documentation and found that log books were not properly kept. He wanted to see the accommodation for duty staff, from where they could be quickly mobilized for emergencies. He discovered that all the accommodation was occupied by the top staff of the Service and their families.

The whole sordid affair of the Minister’s visitation and the drama that set his teeth on edge, complete with a video, was brought to your attention through a gleeful WhatsApp message from a friend who had played a prominent role in an organization known as LIMGE (Lagos Island Millennium Group on the Environment). The group, made up of private individuals and organisations, with the support of the Lagos Government, had done a yeoman’s job in reviving and restoring the old business district of the city – Marina, Broad Street and adjoining areas, and preventing the big companies from moving their operations out to other places. As part of the exercise, they had rebuilt the old Ajele Fire Station into an ultra-modern facility and brought in a fire chief from New Jersey to conduct training for several of

the staff. The group, backed by Shell, brought in sophisticated firefighting equipment, including rapid-deployment power bikes, and the latest communication gear. They also created good recreational and exercise areas for the firemen.

Your friend – who sent you the video-clip of the fiasco in Abuja, was celebrating that the Lagos fire station, powered by LIMGE, was in a much better place than its Abuja counterpart. The trucks were properly equipped, not painted shells. The men were properly trained and ready to defend the business district of Lagos. Things worked.

But you knew what you knew, and you reflected grimly on it as you considered the issues. The people who had been trained and so expensively equipped to fight fire in the business district of Lagos were mostly ‘federal’, not ‘state’ fire fighters.

There was an interesting story you heard from the same friend– perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal, about what happened when the head of the ‘federal’ firefighters was informed that there were power bikes among the vehicles procured by LIMGE for firefighting in the business district. He had wanted the power bikes to be moved to Abuja so they could serve as outriders to his motorcade. The LIMGE people, surprised by the request, demurred.

The reality is that fire is a ‘local’ event, and the most efficient way to combat it has to be local too. The existence of a hugely resourced, all-powerful behemoth known as the ‘Federal Fire Service’ trying vainly to have a presence everywhere is a demonstration of the dysfunctional unitary state that is Nigeria. Every state of the federation is actually supposed to have its own fire service. It should be one of the key functions of every responsible state government to equip and train its fire service. A powerful federal agency based in Abuja which maintains fire stations in different states – with the ‘federal’ and ‘state’ services operating essentially in parallel and one thumbing its nose at the ‘inferior’ other, is an unaffordable waste that adds little value to firefighting. A federal service could be a monitor and coordinator for state services that actually do the work, and should operate in a complementary fashion to them, avoiding the creation of a redundancy that a poor country like Nigeria can ill afford. It certainly is part of what needs to be ‘restructured’ about Nigeria.

But back to the Abuja Fire Service, and the Minister and his chagrin.

The Minister was so offended that he immediately sent the Director on suspension for one week. Why he did not fire him and order a wholesale revamp and reconstruction of the system would forever remain a mystery. Surely that was what the people of Abuja deserved if they were to sleep safely in their beds at night, certain that any accident of fire would be appropriately dealt with by the appropriate agency of their government.

The whole subject of organizing fire services in a wasteful and inefficient federation is at every point liable to throw up mysteries which demonstrate that Nigeria still needs, as a nation, to ‘get it’. You had often tried to visualize in your mind the look of mystery that must have been on the face of your LIMGE friend when the big boss from Abuja requested to take the fire-fighting power-bikes newly procured with private sector funds to be arrow-heads of fire response in the business district of Lagos to Abuja for use on his motorcade. It was a ludicrous notion, but it apparently made perfect sense to him.

 

 Femi Olugbile

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