Hon Emeka Ukwuaba, a former commissioner for public utilities in Enugu State, supervised Enugu State Fire Service before the regime of Gov Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi came on board. He speaks on how the agency was then and his impression on its present situati with Adadainfo.
How was the state Fire Service under your supervision?
One of the agencies that suffered terribly under the military era was the Fire Service Department. It got so bad that by the time they were handing over to the civilian regime in 1999, there were virtually no operational vehicles to attack fire. It was a risky business for people to serve under the Fire Service because when outbreaks occurred, they had no means of getting to the areas.
On some occasions, people walked all the way from Abakpa to the Fire Service at Ogui Road to drag them out as if they had the means. Sometimes, they stoned the office in protest for lacking fire-fighting capacities. On one occasion, there was fire at Abakpa. The Fire Service was called. There was only one functional vehicle. It was around midnight, and we mobilised. At the 82 Division, it broke down. The Abakpa people who were on foot to lead the fire fighters to the area met them and descended on them. They beat them up. Many were wounded.
The risk then was not just about the fire we were attacking, but the people who were expecting us to do impossible magic. The DFID of the British government tried to repair some vehicles for us. They gave them to a contractor to repair. The contractor washed up the vehicles, and managed to bring them back. Nothing was done on them. When we saw that the engine of one of them could not work, we borrowed about N200, 000 to fix the engine they claimed they had fixed. It was this vehicle that broke down that fateful day.
Was it a case of negligence or poor budgetary allocation?
It was budgetary allocation mainly. The staffing was anything but commensurate. When I was the commissioner overseeing that department, the chief fire officer was a Standard Six holder. There were no engineers. That was an aspect where the DFID helped us because through their support, we were able to recruit the first engineer, who happens to be the current state Chief Fire Officer. That was when we made bold to bring experts and educated people into the service. It was part of the reform process that the DFID brought while helping Enugu State government. We were able to recruit 31 staff members. The least then were school certificate holders that had five credits including chemistry. Today, through in-service, most of them are graduate engineers.
I would look at the negligence aspect as prioritisation. Not every aspect of decadence can be handled at once, so a government can choose where to face. The immediate government that took over from the military gave priorities to other areas other than the Fire Service.
What is your impression on the current state of the state Fire Service?
This is one salient area where the present administration has outclassed most other states in terms of diversification of fire offices, from two or three fire stations we had before to more than nine or more. Not only that, they are well-equipped, with vehicles. I like to give one example at Ogrute, Igboeze North LGA. Some months ago, a big market there was on fire. Because of the proximity of a brand new fire station close to that market, within minutes, the fire was put out. That market is among the largest in the state. You can guess what could have happened if the Fire Service were not there. Such stations are spread across the state; old ones were consolidated.
Suggest areas for possible improvement
It cannot be enough. One thing that is necessary for fighting fire is building of water hydrants. They are exclusive water reservoirs for fire services only. In those days, they were spread on streets, so that in the event of using up the water in their tanks, they just access such hydrants to refill. Today, the hydrants are almost disappeared. Urban water is also not very reliable. I would suggest that at all these places where there are fire stations, there should also be boreholes to provide ready water. In those days, we used to have fire calls and there won’t be water in tanks. Some fires can be crazy in dense communities.
How can local government chairmen play more roles in this sector?
I won’t advocate local governments creating fire service agencies on their own. They could easily collaborate with the state Fire Service for maximum efficiency. They can help in maintaining fire stations and providing other services. Their contributions are immense. The chairmen do assist security agencies. It is indeed the sole responsibility of the federal government to maintain the police and the army. But today, state and local governments are assisting as well. So, local governments can provide fire vehicles and other basic equipment to the state Fire Service, after all it is the locals of these areas that these fire men save in case of fire eventualities.
How best can the crusade against fire outbreaks be taken to the grassroots?
Enlightenment is the key. If people don’t know how to report fire in the first place, they may lose their sense of what to do when an outbreak occurs. Publicity matters a lot. The Fire Service should do more in information dissemination. They should hold workshops at rural areas constantly. People should be taught fire prevention and what to do in the event of a fire outbreak. Bush burning should be discouraged.