In Lagos, ‘heroes’ become targets while firefighting
In moments of emergencies, the human adrenal glands kick in and most people flee for safety. This man’s ‘unusual’ adrenal glands hoist him in the opposite direction. If it is a fire outbreak, he runs toward it.
The bravery of this man, a senior fire superintendent in the Lagos State Fire and Rescue Service, might be linked to his name ‘Sango’, which derives from an ancient god of fire in Nigeria’s South West. When linked with his current position, it could be seen as a matter of destiny.
A graduate of mechanical engineering, being a fireman was not Abiodun Sangodele’s initial career plan. One moment he was couch potato watching and getting fascinated by the daily operations of a fire service 9,601 km away in Chicago. The next moment, Sangodele who had never seen a fire truck physically, was moving around Lagos in search of the nearest fire station.
“One day I discovered this fire station and I wanted to be part of them. To be a hero,” he recounts his journey into active fire-fighting.
Ignited in 2010, this craving has kept him going even after he joined the fire service in 2017 when the opportunity came. Now, all he thinks about every morning is the one thing he always imagined—to save lives and properties.
Fire outbreaks lead to economic losses. These incidents are costly and come with a lot of pain from several losses including human lives.
A recent fire outbreak in Oko Baba, a waterfront community in Lagos, gutted a sawmill in the area. Before this, a Lagos Island market went up in flames last year leading to losses victims are yet to recover from.
Although 78 percent of major fire causes were linked to electrical technical fault in 2014, a research by John Cobin found a connection between the design of buildings and fire outbreaks in Nigeria’s economic hub.
In The Enterprise of Fire Safety Services in Lagos, Nigeria, Cobin noted that the quality of construction in Lagos State is not up to par with First World standards, arguing that Lagos homes use significant amounts of materials and fuels that increase fire danger.
Such fire disasters and other related emergencies were to be addressed when the state set up its own Fire Service by an Edict of Lagos State Law Cap 42 of 1972. The department functions under the Ministry of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Relations with 16 functional fire stations across the State.
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Headquartered in Alausa, it is driven by three main goals—to guarantee a prompt response to fire calls, rescue operations and other related emergencies while ensuring pro-activeness through fire preventive measures and training.
Responding to fire emergencies
Being a fireman in Lagos means you are an endangered species; as they are often accused of coming late to fire scenes, hence targeted. But responding to fire calls involves a lot more than perceived.
The process is not simple and involves a lot of technicalities, everything begins the time a call is placed. When a call is received from the command-and-control centre, the alarm bell is dropped and the address is given to the men who then turn out with the fire truck.
Arriving at the fire scene, an assessment is done and if the men and equipment are adequate to deal with the fire incident, they give an informative message, “arrival at the scene and in charge.” If not, an assistant message is given, “arrival at the scene, make pump two.”
The message then goes to the back end and after the danger is out, a report of the operation is done.
However, how fast officers get to the scene depends on the response time, which could further be affected by several other factors as BusinessDay learnt, leading to delayed response.
Amodu Shakiru, head of Public Education, Lagos State Fire and Rescue Service, said that the response time, which is made up of the turnout time and also, the travel time, begins from when the call was placed, not when the incident happens.
Shakiru said traffic gridlock, bad roads are some factors that affect the travel time, which ultimately affects the time firemen arrive at emergency sites.
“You have challenges like truck barriers in some environments, road bumps that also limits speed, you have double parking in some environments, and motorists don’t yield to the siren,” he further explains.
The fire department also helps in preventing fire outbreaks through various education programmes on radio delivered in Yoruba Language and Pidgin English, in addition to responding to fire calls.
A high-risk job
At the heart of these responses is Sangodele, whose job is to drive the firemen to the scene of the emergency and also operate the pump. The smile on the 35-years-old’s visage illuminated the excitement of going to work and helping Lagosians out of deadly situations.
He and his colleagues have been at the fore of the state’s emergency operations and the best moments for them are when an operation is successful and completed on time. When there’s no emergency to attend to, they engage in some administrative work, or simply engage in a sporting activity, like table tennis, to keep fit.
But when the bell drops, signaling a fire call, they worry.
This is because their job comes with significant life-threatening risks. Fire officers told BusinessDay that they often encounter perilous confrontations with thugs during official duties.
They are beaten and sometimes pelted with stones when they are at emergency scenes.
The fire truck gets badly damaged and some firemen leave the scene with serious injuries. In the past, firemen have died from such confrontations. Three firemen, recalls one of the senior firefighters at the Alausa facility.
Although deaths from such encounters have now dropped due to the state’s interventions, the dangers never stop, especially when duty calls in some areas identified as ‘black spots.’
Afolabi Olukayode, 54, is a higher fire superintendent at Isolo Fire Station. In his 13 years of service, the Ekiti State indigene has seen some of the worst events as a fireman. He recalled an operation somewhere in Orile where a wall fell on him as some hoodlums fought over a loot.
He said in the last incident that occurred in Ijora, a group of men approached them with cutlasses and stones, accusing them of arriving late to the scene. These have become constant sources of worry for the officers.
“It’s very bad,” said Olonitola Samuel, another fireman. “I worry about my life a lot each time I step out. A rescuer must not be the victim.”
Despite the possibility of dying, Samuel said he cannot give up fire-fighting for Business Administration, his original field of study as an undergraduate. However, he hopes that the state government could help to enlighten people more about respecting firemen and not seeing them as enemies.
The robust arrangement requiring more
Most of the challenges they experience vis-à-vis the response time are out of their control, mainly because there are no dedicated roads for fire trucks. This is further compounded by late calls.
But, when it comes to the safety of firemen, there is a “robust arrangement” in terms of security when they roll out to perform official assignment.
Ogabi Olajide Adesina, acting deputy, State Fire Comptroller, said there is a synergy between all the security agencies and fire service, particularly the Rapid Response Squad (RRS).
“We have a very robust arrangement with all the police stations around us,” Adesina said. “There are places we refer to as black spots when it comes to fire. So, as we go, we know we’re likely to face challenges in such areas. So, there is a special arrangement to quickly get back up from RRS.”
Firemen are also provided with a radio with which they communicate with each other. They are also encouraged to call the control room to call the RRS for assistance when in trouble, and when they are in dangerous areas, they could walk to the nearest police station to request help.
However, some perceive these measures fall short in guaranteeing their safety as it cannot be determined, how swiftly a police officer may arrive in time to save the day. While this situation remains, more can be done to improve on their security.
In interviews with BusinessDay, they express belief that a lot can also be done regarding their welfare as well as medical care as they inhale a copious amount of smoke and other chemicals.
Though by his own admission, Sangodele really enjoys his job, there is one thing he cannot deny; his life is constantly in danger.
“The job is a risk!” he exclaimed. “We need security immediately we’re turning out the truck. If you’re not courageous, you will quit because you’re trying to save lives and properties, but people still want to take my life for it.”