Challenges in the Pursuit of a Fire-Free State


… Experts call for collaborative effort from the public and the fire service.

Many setbacks confront combatting of fire disasters in Lagos state, including poor response to emergency calls and grossly inadequate firefighting at the scene of fire incidents. While the state government has intensified effort to improve this, perhaps better than any other state of the country, the Centre of Excellence still falls behind the standard expected of the mega-city status she obviously aspires to. However, for fire disasters to be effectively handled, the populace need make a preliminary effort, VICTORY BERNARD writes.

Fire disasters have remained a recurring problem in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre. In different parts of the state, several unexpected fire incidents have led to the loss of precious lives and properties worth billions of naira over the years.

The Lagos State Fire Service has been at the forefront of battling these fire incidents, most of which result from one error or the other. Perpetually boasting of the quality of equipment at its disposal, the service has had to constantly beat time to combat these fire incidents. Owing to the peculiar situation of the state – the smallest in landmass housing the largest population in the nation – the fire service has always been kept on its toes by the frequency of fire emergencies.

Although referred to as the best in Nigeria, some fire incidents reveal the inadequacies of the Lagos State Fire Service, one of which includes cases of poor response.

In September 2016, a fire incident occurred at Ijora-Badia, Apapa Local Government Area of Lagos state, destroying properties worth millions of naira. On the day, it was gathered that residents called the fire service around 2:00am when the fire started but its men arrived only after the street residents had put out the fire themselves.

Residents lamented the failure of the nearby fire service station at Ijora/Boundary to come to their rescue in time, despite answering calls placed to the station by the residents. It was also learnt that only the Jibowu fire service station (in Lagos Mainland Local Government Area), located many kilometres away, appeared two hours after the fire started. Fortunately, there was no casualty.

However, a tenant of the affected building, Ahmed Ibrahim, who lost all his property to the incident, said he could not ascertain the cause of the fire but the fire started from the roof.

According to him, a call was made to the known state emergency numbers but there was no response.

“As the fire started we called the fire service and they disappointed us but the fire service came two hours after, when the shops were a mess. The fire started so fast that I could not take anything from the house. All our properties were destroyed,” he said.

Another eyewitness at the scene, Mr. Igwe Ogbonna said that it was an unfortunate scenario adding that his friends lost goods worth over millions.

“We were confused and shocked at the first sight of the fire but immediately called the fire services at Ajegunle very close to the place. It was later when the fire had totally burnt the shops that we saw them.

“It was even a nearby fire service that came to terminate the fire; it was the fire service from Jibowu. It was a painful loss because the fire service did not come to this place until 3:00am, that is an hour after the fire started when there was nothing left for them to do,” Ogbonna said.

Another resident, Mrs. Ajibike Raheem, who lost her frozen food store to the fire, said street boys and community members helped fight the fire adding that the fire service came two hours after the incident.

This is just one of the many cases of untimely response to fire disasters that calls the competence of the fire service in Lagos to question.

Emergency lines don’t go through

The Lagos state emergency lines are 767 and 112. Although many calls put through any of these numbers have yielded good fruits in the state, some residents claim that the lines don’t go through when called.

Some others say they have to repeatedly try the lines before they get put through. This is another problem in the battle against fire disasters. According to experts, fire disasters happen on a regularly basis and high number of calls come in through the emergency lines per day. Hence, some calls may be missed.

Emergency goes through but no response

Sometimes, calls made to the emergency services go through but are not responded to. Fire experts have identified one of the causes of such as not having fire service hotlines to enable them directly alert the closest fire station.

An incident in relation to this happened at popular Governor Road, Ikotun, in Alimosho LGA. At midnight on November 30, 2016, a Mazda 626 car was burnt beyond recognition. The car’s owner Mr. Kazeem Shittu claimed that the fire service failed to show up after being alerted and despite a two-hour agonising wait.

The scene of the incident is a three-minute drive from a Lagos State Fire Service station in Ikotun but no help came till 2:00pm, when Shittu left the scene.

Narrating his ordeal, Shittu said: “I ran to the boot to get my fire extinguisher. Neighbours trooped out to help. A colleague of mine also brought his own fire extinguisher but the extinguishers didn’t suffice to quench the fire.”

“I called 112. I tried it the first time and the second time (but), there was no response. I then tried it the third time and somebody picked it. She promised to get back to me. Before she called back, the car had been razed. That is to tell you the time wasted,” he said.

Why didn’t you call us directly?

“I was referred again to another person who began to question me as if she was quarrelling with me. She asked me, ‘Why didn’t you call our number directly?’ My car is burning and you are asking me all these questions,” Shittu said in a telephone chat with Safety Record Newspaper.

He added that he was disappointed with the kind of response he got from the emergency helpline operator. “I rate them very poor. If somebody was there, the person should have come.”

From this incident, Mr. Shittu placed a call to the emergency line “112”. He was thereafter referred to the fire service at Ikotun and the helpline operator asked, ‘Why didn’t you call our number directly?’

While the operator must have been talking about the fire service hotline, the truth is that many residents have no knowledge of fire service hotline. What they know is the 767 and 112 emergency lines.

However, in a telephone chat with Safety Record Newspaper, the Spokesman of the Lagos State Fire Service, Mr. Amodu Shakiru, said the incident was preventable.

According to him, if the fire service was called directly, they would have got to the scene in less than three minutes.

He said, “The fire service hotlines help you to directly get the fire service; but the 767 or 112 goes to the emergency command and control, Lagos state centre; then the call is cascaded to the fire service. The standard time in the world for fire service emergency is 3 minutes. That is, if I get your call by 12:00, I am expected to get there by 12:03.”

A fire expert, Mr. Misikini Shonekan advised residents to know the fire service hotlines of the fire service close to their areas.

“The Lagos state government has its emergency numbers 767 and 112. For you that does not know the hotline for fire service, if you dial any one of this number (767 or 112), it will take them some minutes before they can connect fire service.

“If you dial 767 or 112, they might be attending to another emergency. They might want to contact either the LASEMA OR LASEPA or FEMA.

“So you see how different it is when you have the direct line of a close-by fire service in tackling a fire outbreak.

“And if they manage to connect to the fire service, before the fire service gets to the scene time has gone already. And fire doesn’t wait for anybody,” Shonekan, who is the first Commander of Operation, Lagos State Fire Service, said.

Hurdles on the way of emergency fire trucks

According to the service, emergency calls come in regularly to the Lagos State Fire Control Centre. From there, the information is dispatched to the fire service close to the area of emergency. Subsequently, the fire service finds their way to the scene of emergency to fight the fire. However, many things pose as obstacles in the effort to combat fire in the state.

Narrow Roads

The narrowness of Lagos roads is one of the obstacles that delay the eventual arrival of the fire service. Due to their size, fire trucks require more driving space on the road.

According to Shonekan, who is currently the Head of Fire and Safety Unit, Church Gate Nigeria Limited, he noted that the public create problems for the fire service by packing cars along the roads.

He said, “Most of the roads in Lagos are so narrow and with the narrow position of the road, people are still packing left and right.

“And when the truck has gotten to the scene of emergency, we need to call youth around to come and help us carry those vehicles away from the road.

“Because the fire truck is so big and wide, the road cannot contain it. And we may be talking about a long distance. So once residents who have a case of emergency are aware that the fire service is coming, they need to assist us in telling people that the fire truck is coming. They should go and remove these vehicles from the road.

“But residents won’t do that until when you get to their area. So this is one of the challenges.”

Traffic Gridlock

On the way to the scene of emergency, emergency trucks are expected to get to the scene of emergency within 3 minutes, but the gridlock on Lagos roads sometimes makes this an impossible task.

Shonekan noted that traffic gridlock is another major problem affecting the speed of fire trucks in getting to the scene of emergencies.

He added that many drivers remain ignorant about giving a fire truck on emergency mission right of way.

“And not only that, most of the roads that the fire service trucks take might be locked up in traffic. There is traffic on the roads. Some people will say, ‘don’t mind the fire service people’. But when they see an array of soldiers coming, they will park away from the road,” he said.

What to do before the arrival of fire trucks

Fire safety experts and organisations have advocated for the culture of fire prevention in the state through continuous enlightenment programmes in the commercial sector and also government ministries.

Despite this, fire disasters remain inevitable. To effectively tackle this menace, there is need for a collaborative effort from the public and the fire service.

The public must play a complementary role prior to the time the fire service gets to the scene of emergency. Their role should be to prepare the way for the fire service to effectively carry out their operation. Hence, they have a responsibility to ensure that the fire does not escalate beyond the capability of the ordinary person.

How do they do this? The Spokesman of the Lagos State Fire Service, Mr. Amodu Shakiru, said, “In the case of a building, what do you do if you discover emergency before the arrival of fire service, you raise an alarm. Once you discover fire, you raise an alarm.

“If there is an alarm call point there or ringer, you use it. Raise an alarm on the top of your voice, not with your bedroom voice so that others who are occupying the building will be able to escape from the building,” he advised.

He continued, “While you are evacuating the building, don’t push. You shouldn’t rush because in the process if two or three of us are trying to evacuate, if you push one other, the three of us may fall; and emergency will become voluminous.

“Walk briskly and smartly as possible to an escape pre-determined point which is the Assembly Point.”

He explained that after raising alarm, the next thing you do is to evacuate the building to a safe place.

“A safe place, we have determined it to be a pre-determined point where we call Assembly Point. Every occupant of that building will escape to that place,” he said.

The next thing, he said is to call the emergency lines. In Lagos, the emergency lines include 767 and 112.

“If fire extinguisher is in that premises, you make use of it. Once you know how to use it, make use of it.

“The next thing you do now is to fight the fire. If it is too much for the fire extinguisher then, they should wait for the fire service,” he said.

Explaining the component of fire, Shonekan said that it comprises fuel, heat and oxygen, and therefore can be combated if denied its components.

“The formation of fire comprises three things – fuel, heat and oxygen. If you are able to remove one of these three combustible materials, the fire reacts immediately.

“If it’s the fuel you can remove, you remove it; if it is oxygen or heat, you can remove it from the fire before the arrival of the fire service. They cannot just fold hands and be looking at it (the fire).”

He also appealed to residents to have the emergency lines handy, including the fire service hotlines.

He said, “There is no how you will call the fire service that there will be no response. You should know the emergency hotlines to connect the fire service immediately.

“When you connect us immediately, we are on our way. But before our coming, try and do something, don’t allow the fire to now spread beyond control.

“If fire is burning, leave the one that has already been burnt out. And go to where it’s spreading to start attacking the fire.

“Have the hotline to fire service direct. Meet a fire officer anywhere you see them,” he said.

Obtaining the fire service hotline instead of calling 767, which could lead to loss of valuable time in redirecting the call, could help combat incidents like the Ikotun car fire incident.

In combating a car fire incident, the approach could be different. Hence the need for an on-hand and befitting fire extinguisher that should be in service for up to 6 to 9 months.

“If you are using a car or a truck, you should be prepared for fire outbreak at any time. Don’t depend on the assumption that my car cannot catch fire,” Shonekan said.

The fire service spokesman, Shakiru, said, “The man whose car is burning should make a way out of his car and when he does that, he should have his extinguisher at hand. He should know how to use the extinguisher. Usage of extinguisher is simple as PASS.

“P is for PULL. Next, you AIM at the place of fire. Then you SQUEEZE the lever for the content to dispense from the extinguisher. And the next S, you SWEEP from left to right; from bottom to down.

“The percentage of the cost of extinguisher is at 0.0000.1 of whatever material you are covering. Imagine a car bought for N500, 000.

“With less than N5, 000, you get an extinguisher to save it. So you must have an extinguisher. That is the most appropriate first aid for firefighting,” he said.