Engr. Martin Agbili is the Director and Chief Fire Officer of Anambra State Fire Service. Since assuming office, he has worked assiduously to elevate the image of the service in the state and across country and position the agency on enviable height. In this interview, he urges the public to imbibe fire safety measures and stressed the need to see fire men as doing humanitarian work rather than cast aspersions on them, among others fire issues. He spoke to EMEKA CHIAGHANAM. Excerpts:
WHAT do you consider the duty of a fireman?
The primary duty of a fireman is to save lives and properties and to render humanitarian services where due, besides sensitising the public through fire education. This lets the public know the dos and don’ts of fire safety and its management. Anambra State Fire Service tows the part of hard work to meet the public needs. It’s a demanding and challenging job. Imagine fire burning, people running away and the only people that will go in there are fire fighters.
Are there challenges you face on the job?
Our challenges are many. To start with, as it is now, manpower stands huge among them all. The strength of the firemen in the state is reducing every year, because firefighters are retiring. Then, there is issue of those that believe that the payment is not worth the effort put in the job. At a point, they leave the job. Then, there are those who might have incurred injuries from fire scenes when they feel that what is being given them to sustain themselves or that the hazardous allowance does not relate with their sacrifices, they leave the service. But mainly, it is because of retirement of those that are overdue in the service.
Any effort to replace those that are retiring?
Yes, we have written the state government and we believe they are doing something about it. The state government has given approval for recruitment, though it has not been effected. We are still waiting for the implementation of the recruitment exercise. People are retiring and we need to replace them in the service. The more we wait; it continues to have adverse effect on the service.
Has your agency insurance for staff that die fighting fire?
In fact, it has been a very big issue. To start with, firemen die at the scene of fire. Sometimes, we receive bullets, beatings from the public, while attending to fire outbreak, which we are not the cause. To your question regarding benefits and welfare of firemen, the truth remains that we are looking to the government to implement what they promised us, because as it stands, no insurance for fire service or firemen in the state. The issue of hazard allowance, the government has promised to look into it. They set up a committee to look into the upward review of the hazard allowance of fire firefighters in the state. The insurance, there is no insurance for firemen in the state for now.
Do you have sub stations outside Awka?
The state has nine functional fire stations within the state. Apart from the headquarters station, we have fire station at Government House, one at Amawbia, in Ogidi, at the Building Material Market. The one at Okpoko is the major fire station in Onitsha. We have one at Main Market, another at Nkpor, Nnewi, and the one at Ekwulobia. Then one is still under construction. We have one at Agulu, Umunze, Nnewi, Ihiala and Otuocha. When completed, we will have 14 fire stations in the state.
People assert that your men don’t respond fast to emergency. What is your reaction to that?
Sometimes, when I hear this question, I laugh. Those things said are not true. I will always tell you that fire fighters respond to fire call immediately. For you to determine whether fire service respond to distress calls depends on many factors, like the time of the call. It is not 30 minutes after fire outbreak that you call firemen and expect them to make magic. It is not possible. In fire service, what we count is the time of call and response time when the firemen arrived at the fire scene. However, what the public considers is the time the fire started and when our men arrived the fire scene. Oftentimes, when fire starts, people don’t call immediately. What they do is that they try to extinguish the fire themselves and later, call the fire service which is not normal.
They should also consider the traffic. Imagine everyone is using sirens on our roads when they are not supposed. Even when you try to decongest the traffic, it becomes a problem. Those things count, including bad roads. These things contribute to the factors that make people say we don’t respond in time. Even when we try to ply an alternative road, you may discover that there are those that contest the road with you. That equally slows the motion. Funny enough, most people don’t know the fire service emergency numbers to call, which we display on radio, television stations, newspapers and social media.
Your job is dynamic. What measures do you have in place to keep your men relevant on the job?
We have an internal program where we train and retrain our staff. If you don’t train fire fighters, they can’t perform and that is disservice. Occasionally, we map out two or three weeks, where we engage in internal training. We have written to the state government to have enlarged training for all the fire men in the state. Though we wait for government, we are not relenting, we do the ones we can do.
How do you sensitise the public on fire issues?
We use the mainstream media and social media platforms. Again, we move to schools, churches and markets to sensitize the people. We plan to meet the Head of Service to sensitize the civil servants in the state. This will go a long way to the grassroots. After sensitising them, they will go back and sensitise their family members. Another thing is that we plan to go to the communities. We have already discussed with their presidents general. We use their town halls on a particular day and sensitise the communities.
How accessible are your services to people in hinterland?
Sincerely, they are finding it difficult. But I remember telling them there are no fire outbreaks in the state that we will not get there, only that we may not get there in time, depending on the distance. What we do is to send the nearest fire station near them to the distress call.
How should fire outbreaks be managed before your men arrive?
In managing of fire, safety rule is very important. We should know that in our homes, there are fire safety mechanism we should have, like the fire extinguisher, smoke detector, fire alarm, as the case may be. But the issues is this, if you have fire extinguisher, when there is fire outbreak, what you do is to apply the extinguisher at the early stage of the fire outbreak, but once it gets out of hand, it is no longer your business. All you have to do call the fire service.
Another thing we have always told people is that immediately you notice any atom of fire, raise alarm, shout for people to come to your aid. If you witness fire outbreak, you know it comes with confusion, such situation can make someone forget fire service number, or even where the phone is but when you raise alarm, a passerby or someone else can send message across and call the fire service. We appreciate it when people try to extinguish fire, but when it gets out of using mere fire extinguisher, then the job is for the service and until we are called, we can do nothing about it. Firefighters are professionals trained for this.
Any achievement since you assumed office?
Anambra poised to reposition
fire fighting. As it stands, despite our challenges, we have the best fire service in the Southeast of the country. We have been able to record 90 percent success with sensitizing campaign. We take fire awareness to schools, churches, markets. We have met with ASATU to form community wardens. That one is still on the pipeline. We have been able to sensitize people on fire issues in such a way that it has not been before within and beyond Anambra State.
Again, the internal training we give our men has been on constant basis, unlike before. We started and introduced the International Fire Fighter Day in the state. Another one is our engagement with the state government, among others.
We want to appreciate Governor Willie Obiano. He has done much for the state fire service within the short time I assumed office. I must tell you that Anambra State fire service is excelling because of the right platform that Gov. Obiano has created. We are working hard to make the state proud. Just as we are doing that, we are asking the state government to recruit more firemen into the state fire service and enhance welfare entitlement of firemen.
Any message to the public?
Fire kills but you can prevent it. The only thing you owe fire service is to call them so that they can get there in time to extinguish the fire. Also, the public should bear with fire service men, they are not the cause of fire outbreak. We only come there to assist those in distress. They should desist from throwing stones or beating firemen or engaging them in a fight. We are only doing our humanitarian services and that is what we owe the public. You don’t pay for service for us to come to a fire scene. What you owe us is you call.