By Collins Ughalaa KSC
The Fire Service is an essential emergency service provider, an agency of government saddled with the provision of firefighting services. In some climes, they are referred to as technical rescue, fire protection, fire investigation, or emergency medical services. Firefighting departments are usually known as public-sector units. They could exist within a municipality, county, state, nation, or special district. In the United States, Austria, Germany and Canada, etcetera, firefighting is usually organized on a municipal level. Private and specialist firefighting organizations also exist, such as those for aircraft rescue and firefighting. For effectiveness, a firefighting department contains one or more fire stations, or branches within its area of operation. Usually, they have workers who may have been trained as professional firefighters, volunteers and conscripts.
In Nigeria, the Fire Service was first established in 1901 as a unit of the Lagos Police Fire Brigade. In April 1963, Nigeria came up with an Act establishing the Fire Service, with the statutory responsibility for rescue, fire prevention, mitigation, firefighting as well as paramedical and information services. In 2007 the fire service went through a reform which led to the redefinition of the mandate of the Service, opening the space for private sector players. The 2007 fire service regulation led to innovations, such as the prescription and monitoring of standards for the promotion of fire education, fire prevention, safety, mitigation and investigation, ensuring effective discharge of the functions of the State Fire Service, provision of policy direction for the Nation’s Fire Services, ensuring the standardization of fire and rescue equipment manufactured or imported into Nigeria, among others.
In Imo State, like in most places in Nigeria, firefighting is one problem that has not been meaningfully resolved. The Fire Service is perhaps one of the agencies of the Imo State Government that has not lived up to its mandate. This is buttressed by the Director of Imo State Fire Service, Mr. Japhat Okereafor, who was in November 2019 reported to have admitted the ineffectiveness of the Imo State Fire Service, saying that they lacked enough man-power and chemicals to fight fire, as well as communication gadgets to carry out their firefighting functions. Okereafor’s comment is symbolic of the mess in the firefighting organization and also signposts the need for urgent actions to salvage the organization.
In another report, Patrick Aje, the Zonal Commander of the State Fire Service in Orlu, said the Fire Service is incapacitated. He said: “We have only one functional fire truck donated to the service by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDC). It worked for a while and developed a fault and has been abandoned. When a fire incident is at an incipient stage, we can afford to do something and put it off, when we are notified. But when the fire had spread, there was little we could do. The only option would be to call the headquarters in Owerri for assistance, and you know the distance from Owerri to Orlu and what harm could have been done before they get here.”
Fire outbreak is an emergency that happens to the high and low, and concerted effort is needed to engineer a serious firefighting mechanism in Imo State. In the new effort to reposition the Imo State Fire Service, the House of Assembly should, therefore, move away from window dressing antics, but rather make new laws that will actually empower the organization. It is not enough to create zonal offices. The offices must be adequately staffed. The staffers must be adequately trained and motivated and equipped.
Coming from the background of years of neglect, many people may find comforting the ongoing move by the Imo State House of Assembly to provide a legal framework for the agency and inject the needed impetus. The bill which was introduced by Hon. Michael Onyemaechi Njoku, representing Ihitte-Uboma State Constituency, and three other members of the House, seeks to amend the Imo State Fire Service Bureau Law no. 12 of 2019 and Other Related Matters. The bill has already passed through the Second Reading and has been referred to the House Committee on Public Utilities, which is expected to submit their report to the House on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
Noting that the Fire Service is a critical part of the society, Hon. Njoku said the bill provides that the State’s Fire Service Bureau would be headquartered in Owerri, with three zonal offices at Owerri, Okigwe and Orlu, and to be headed by Zonal Fire Service Commanders. The bill also provides that each of the 27 local governments of the State would have Fire Service offices.
Hon. Njoku and his colleagues deserve a pat on the back, no doubt. But there are worrisome provisions in the proposed bill which should be revisited. For example, the bill provides that public or private owners of houses should provide suitable fire extinguishers for the Fire Service to be applied in case of emergency. Another worrisome provision of the new bill is that owners of rescued domestic animals will pay between N1,000 and N3,000, depending on the size of the animal, to the Fire Service; while rescued human beings would pay N20,000 or above, for their rescue. Also, the bill provides payment for putting out fires in petrol stations, hotels and supermarkets. The lawmakers said the need for the charges is to enhance the revenue of the State and also make the services efficient and sustainable.
While we commend the thoughtfulness of the sponsors of the bill and find it plausible that services such as pumping out water from flooded area or building, dredging of industrial cluster, issuance of fire service compliance certificate, etcetera, should be paid for, we note that the bill should not be passed as it is. The main function of government is the protection of life and property and the wellbeing of the people. To therefore ask the people to pay sundry fees for being rescued from fire disaster is unconscionable.
Part of the service the people expect from their government is protection and rescue from emergencies. Firefighting services are emergency services. The victims, where they are tenants or landlords, may have been paying tenement rates and taxes to the Government. If there is a failure in payment of these levies, the Government should accept the blame for lackluster enforcement. Asking the people to pay for rescue operations of the Fire Service is like asking them to pay security agencies for rescuing them from kidnappers, or saving them from armed robbers. It is like asking someone who was saved from drowning to pay the government for saving him, or asking an accident victim who was rescued by the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), or any other agency of the Government, to pay for the services rendered to him.
We urge the House to consider altering the sections of the new bill that stipulate that property owners should provide suitable firefighting equipment such as fire extinguishers for the use of the Fire Service on rescue duty. The sections should rather read that the property owners should provide suitable fire extinguishers and other firefighting equipment and place them at strategic places in their property. The essence of this provision should be to encourage self-help by property owners and also mitigate the incidents of fire outbreak.
We should not always see government services as a revenue generating mechanism. Public services that have to do with life and death situations should not be paid for. They are different from someone acquiring a driver’s license. A victim of a fire outbreak has a lot to contend with, including emotional stability. Asking him to pay for rescue operations could be an overkill. Rather than paying for the rescue operations, a citizen should be grateful and proud that his State Government rescued him, the same way the United States Army rescued their citizen who was abducted and kept hostage in Nigeria. How would the US citizen have felt if the US Army, after the rescue operations, asked him to pay a certain fee?
Our submission is in tandem with the provisions of sections of the Nigeria’s Fire Service Act (Fire Service Regulations) 2007 and 2019, which empowers the Fire Service to “prevent uncontrolled fires in our environment, especially our markets, public and private buildings and structures and reduce the incidence of loss of lives and property”. Moreover, Section 24, subsections 1 and 2 of the Fire Service Act of 1964, provides that “No charge shall be made for any service rendered by the Fire Service in extinguishing fires. Charges may be made for services, other than extinguishing fires, rendered by the Fire Service at rates to be prescribed”.