FIRE accident has been as old as man can trace the use of light. Even the prehistoric people made use of fire to roast animals caught in their hunting escapades for their feed. They had lost their forests, homes and valuables to fire also.
In recent time, the issue of fire outbreaks within social community has become worrisome. This is most disturbing given the magnitude of losses that usually accompany such disaster, especially when some of the occurrences could be avoidabed.
Some conflagrations in history had often been traced to a mere spark of what seemed to be an innocuous flame. The great Chicago fire of 1871 caused by mere kick of lantern by cow, within two days ravaged the city, killing about 300 people while destroying approximately 3.3 square miles of the city and rendering 100,000 residents homeless with 17500 buildings consumed according to available record. The cause of the fire which was said to have started in the property belonging to Irish immigrants, Patrick and Catherine O’ Leary, remains subject of contention till date following Catherine’s rebuttal of the claims and their eventual acquittal from any indictment in the incident by the Chicago City Council, United States a century after the incident, precisely in 1997, when a resolution absolving the O’Leary of any indictment in the incident against earlier held legendary report that the fire was caused by cow that kicked over a lantern kept in a barn located on the O’Leary’s property at 137 Dekoven Street, Chicago.
Record has it that the same day, there was fire outbreak also in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing more than 1000 people.
Surprisingly, the incident led to the election of Joseph Medill (1823 – 1899) as Mayor after pledging to institute stricter building and fire codes for the people. This underscores the importance populace attaches to security of lives and property over other needs.
Even before the Chicago fire, history had already taken into account, the Great London fire of September 1666. Again, in September of 1894, the great Hinckley fire joined the rank; the Triangle shirtwaist fire of 1911 followed in litany of such incidents up to the camp fire of 2018 making a few of the many holocausts in history.
Back home in Nigeria, fire disasters have wrecked colossal damage to the country’s economy, communities and homes being at the receiving ends each time the tragedy struck. The Jos, Plateau State Terminus market fire disaster in 2002 still evokes sad feelings till date. This is given the fact that some affected traders despite their struggles afterwards could not recover from it and get going again. The Great Nigerian House, Shitta Court, Lagos fire in 1997, the Tejuosho, Lagos Market inferno in 2004, the Abule-Egba, Lagos pipeline explosion in 2006 all dealt citizens and national economy hard blows. Deaths were recorded while many properties were lost. Some traders who were doing well in their various trades before the incident are no longer in Lagos today as they couldn’t foot bills of living in Lagos anymore. The multiplier effect is that immediate family instantly gets the heat. Children who are looked forward to in taking the mantle of future leadership are withdrawn from school, child labour is increased, while society has more deviants to deal with.
Anambra State has not had good take on fire incidents. In 1996, Onitsha Main Market got razed in a midnight inferno leaving traders stupefied in the morning as some of them met the rubbles of their supposed wares on arrival for the day’s business. Piteous as it may, some lost their shops thereafter. Before the 1996 fire incident, Onitsha Main Market has suffered two devastating fire disasters in 1980s. Ochanja Market had equally had its share of the disaster, with Osse Market following in the rear. Records of market fire incidents seem to have gone down since the turn of the millennium but a new order seems to be setting-in to re-evoke that old gory feelings.
The Ebule-Egba, Lagos pipe explosion in 2006 which roasted many people like goat, the Aguda-Oja, Surulere, Lagos filling Station fire, all painted a picture of society trotting behind secure and serene clime.
Away from Lagos down to Anambra State, the Nnewi Christmas Eve gas explosion in 2017, the Obosi gas depot fire in 2016, the DMGS Junction filling station fire in 2017 are few of the multiple fire incidents that had ravaged places in the state.
The recent horrendous inferno that gutted the entire Upper-Iweka axis down to Ochanja Market has only added to the horror the people had long lived with. The usual losses, both replaceble and ireparrable became inevitable in the incident
The questions extractable from the prism here are; what had been learned from past occurrences that would have played bigger part in managing or controlling recent incidents? What was done or not done that would have made the difference in the Onitsha fire incidence?
Going by reports from the Iweka-Ochanja Wednesday, October 16, 2019 fire incident, a lot of issues ranging from professional competency on the part of fire fighters in the state, to attitude management on the part of citizens under certain tense situation come into the fore for critical evaluation.
First, citizens need serious accident management situation orientation. The reactionary tendencies of some citizens when there is seemingly delay in the arrival of fire fighters to scenes of fire incident should be modified. This attitudinal change can only come from good understanding of the operations of the agency and likely hitches that may affect their promptness in the discharge of their duties. Citizens should be made to see the fire fighters as mortal beings who put their lives on the line in the course of their job. They should be appreciated for their efforts even when not much could be salvaged in an incident provided they put up serious efforts to save the day. Assessment of their efforts should begin with receiving of distress calls in emergency situation and follow-up actions in deployment of men and equipment to the scene. It will not help matters attacking the fire service men when they arrive somewhat late to scenes of accident, though this act is usually expression of angst by highly provoked citizens with the fire service poor timely response to emergency situations. Both citizens and firefighters have a duty to accommodate each other’s shortcomings and compliment each other’s efforts. Understanding of such need even under critical condition is imperative in establishing deep rooted relationship amongst citizens and fire service workers.
Much as improved relationship between all people in the chain is being advocated, the onus is on the nation’s fire service in general and Anambra State service in particular to up their ante and save the blushes that had hitherto dwarfed their image before the citizens. Many agencies in Nigeria fall into this demeaned category by the people due to observable lapses inherent in their operations or apparent intolerable corruption in their service.
Government usually takes the chunk of blames in the event of failures by its agencies despite providing structures for effective delivery of its policies to the people. The pelting of fire service personnel in the Wednesday afternoon fire in Onitsha shows outright judgement of the people on the dismal performance of the state fire service to the people, albeit unimpressive jungle justice style in the people’s open court.
Then, the question on who drags the service delivery of the state’s fire service down demands answer. Taking it further down, if punitive measures are not meted out to culprits at such obvious lapses, citizen’s view of government as complicit in the poor run may gain flesh despite their (government) expressed commitment to better service to the people.
In the case of Anambra, it is clear that the state government made provisions for the situation by stationing fire service equipment in various markets in the state, including the Onitsha area but deployment of the equipment for effective service by people saddled with the responsibility has been a major issue. This seeming dereliction has continued to water down government’s efforts and further heightened curiosity on how government promotes or mitigates laxity in its operations.
While there may be dyfunctional equipment in markets in Onitsha as suggestive of their numerous failures to turn up when fire incidents erupt within their jurisdiction, it simply cannot justify their ineptitude and seemingly insufficient materials to work with.
This may find ground in the words of Deputy Controller General, Abuja Fire Service, Julius Akpetusi during a media interview, “some states may not have up to 10 fire fighting vehicles and such poses challenge to meeting expectation on calls.”
Much as it is important to provide sufficient fire fighting vehicles in Anambra, driving highly inflammable vehicles into crowded area or using the people’s regular roads in the day should be discouraged. There should as a matter of necessity a legislation to regulate the presence of these mass killing trucks on the roads within specified times of the night.
No more can the people continue to live in fear and uncertainty.