Engr. Martin Agbili, who is popularly known as Agility, is the Chief Fire Officer and Director of Anambra State Fire Service. In this interview with Safety Record’s Paul Mbagwu in his office in Awka, he talks about the National Fire Safety Code, major causes of domestic fire, and efforts by the state governor, Chief Willie Obiano, to reposition the fire service. Excerpt…
For the benefit of our readers, may we know you sir?
First of all, I really want to appreciate you for coming all the way from Lagos to interview us in our office. Again, I want to appreciate Safety Record because this particular company has been moving around sensitizing people about safety both though the media and other channels. I want to say kudos.
To your question, my name is Martin Agbili, by the grace of God, the Chief Fire Officer and Director of Anambra Fire Service.
We need to know more about you. Many have heard so much about the name ‘Agility’, as you are fondly called. Could you tell us more?
Actually, Engr. Martin Agbili is my name. Onyedikacukwu is my native Igbo name. The ‘Agility’ you mentioned is my nick name, which started right from the university days. Friends see me and say I don’t get tired so easily, whatever I want to do I get to it to see that I get it done, even when in the midst of odds. Where they got the name from is my surname – Agbili, which is Igbo. It somehow sounds like Agility. It is from this they started calling me Agility.
Likewise, I joined the service in 1997, which makes it 22 years this year of being in the service, having 22 years’ experience of firefighting, fire safety management and fire prevention, so to say. So I have been in service all this years, working with Anambra state fire service. I grew from the rank and file, from the lowest rank to the position I am today, by the grace of God.
I am a COREN-registered Engineer, the Chairman of Nigeria Society of Engineers, Awka branch, and also the National Vice-President Nigeria Institute of Engineers. I have been a member of safety professionals groups, especially the one we know in Nigeria called Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria (ISPON). I’m a member of Anambra chapter.
I have been practicing safety in all my years in service. I have been reading safety and have been practicing safety.
What would you say informed your decision to venture into safety, because it is not all fire service men that are into safety?
I read Engineering. Some would always ask me, “but you are an Engineer now, what are you doing in the Fire Service?” First of all, I tell them, “If I am not an Engineer then I can’t be on this seat.” That is number one. Number two, I have to go into safety because there is no engineering without safety, and there is no firefighting without safety, as well. The most baffling one is people always asking me if I am a safety officer. I always respond that I am a safety man. But they argue with me, insisting that I am a firefighter and not a safety professional. But I insist there is no way I am just a firefighter. What I needed to do was to become safety professional. This made me start looking around for avenues that can make me to become a safety professional. Then I started studying, writing exams, attending lectures, and so on. I began to do anything that will bring me closer to becoming a professional. Today, I have sat for a lot of safety courses, written exams. I am now into it and am practicing it.
At this point, I want to tell firefighters that they are not safety professionals. You are just a firefighter. You cannot just say you are a fire safety professional. What you are is a firefighter. To become a fire safety professional or a safety professional, all you have to do is to extend your tentacles to other relevant things that will make you become a safety professional. You have to write exams. You have to go into it properly, aside the firefighting which is the main thing. You have to go into all these things. This is because fire safety management or fire is an integral aspect of safety. But when you come into safety, it is more than you can ever think of, it is very large. Fire is just an aspect of safety. So, becoming a firefighter or firefighting officer doesn’t make one a fire safety management professional or make you a safety professional. He must get those things done. He must read, he must write exams and must practice it. The person must also get involved fully in fire practice before he can become one. So the challenge I got from individuals who are safety professionals made me shift from firefighting into fire safety management.
Since you assumed office as Chief Fire and Director of Anambra Fire Service, the face of the fire service in Anambra state has changed. We have had countless testimonies from people and activities within the fire department attests to this. What would you say caused the changes?
Actually, that is the power of sensitization. It didn’t just start today. I remember before taking over this office I was the officer in charge of training and fire sensitization and acting as the PRO of Anambra Fire Service. While in the position, I was always online. I played the role of PRO to the extent that I got involved in all social media. In fact, what really promoted Anambra Fire Service to the level it is today is the sensitization which I was doing on the social media.
You know they say, “If you don’t say that you are, people will never say that you are.” Of course, the Anambra Fire Service has been there working, but nobody knew a thing about her activities. I did not just stop at the use of the social media, I extended the sensitization down to the radio stations and television. This was when people began to take notice of the fire service activities and its existence in the state. What I was doing then, even till now is that I publish everything we do at the fire service online. Anything at all we do, goes online, because people must know about it. People should know what the fire service is doing. Even when we don’t perform well, because people will be fast to showcase you to the public when you are not performing or when you do anything bad. But nobody talks about your positive side. Whatever the bad things people may talk about you, ensure that the positive side of you and what you do is heard by the whole world. And we have been succeeding at this. 80 percent of what we do today is online. The next thing we are driving at now is building our website – Anambra State Fire Service website – so that people can get any information they need about Anambra Fire Service. We are getting there gradually and we will get to that point. So, it’s sensitization and use of the social media that has brought about the changes people are witnessing. Now, Anambra Fire Service has followers online on our social media platforms. Again, when it comes to the social media I have personal accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. When on my social media accounts, I don’t talk about any other thing other than fire, Anambra Fire Service, and safety. So with that people follow me because they are not expecting any other write-up on my timeline. This has generated much interest in my followers who come on my social media platforms to read about fire and the Anambra fire Service.
How compliant to the fire regulations are the corporate organisations in this state?
Actually, gradually like we say, we shall get there. Some of the agencies in Anambra are really trying. We try as much as we can to work with them. For the fire service, which is also one of the fire agencies in the state, we work with a lot of agencies to make sure that this thing gets to the grassroots. The physical planning board is there, the Awka Capital Development Agency (ACDA) is there. The Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Environment are also there. What we do is to work in line with them, forming synergy with them. They are stakeholders when it comes to fire safety and safety, as well. This is because all we do involve the environment which is an aspect of Health, Safety and Environment (HSE). It involves everything they do which relates to human beings and the safety of individuals. Before any building final approval is given, we would have to attest, sign and approve. By so doing, by the time those documents move from physical planning to engineers, town planners, and get to fire service then people’s safety would be ensured. That is how we work. Although there are some people who are not engineers and town planners but are the ones backbiting. Like I normally say, they want to use the back door to get what they want. We are trying as much as possible to see how much we can do to stop those practices. In Anambra state in particular, all these agencies are working hand in hand.
From experience, what would you say is the primary cause of household fire outbreak?
Generally, what causes fire outbreak is carelessness, individual fire carelessness. From the general statistics of fire outbreaks, one of the major cause is electricity, which leads to electrical fire resulting from electrical unit faults or power surge. So, the majority of the fire are caused by this. Sometimes people will say the cause of the fire is unknown. Sincerely, I am telling you that the cause of the fire may be electrical faults. Probably they did not switch off their electrical appliances and by the time electricity is back, the next thing is electrical surge and the fire will be triggered. It could be faulty electrical joint which sparks and causes the fire.
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Another thing that causes fire outbreak is hoarding of petroleum products at home. Another is the carelessness of the people who use cooking gas. That is another major problem. So, by the time they misuse those products, then there would be fire outbreak.
So the major thing, from our statistics, that has been causing fire outbreak is this electrical issue. This can be from electrical faults or power surge.
What would you say has been the impact of your social media campaign on fire safety management and firefighting in Anambra state since you took it up?
The fire incidents in Anambra state has reduced. This is because the power of firefighting lies in fire prevention and fire sensitization. I always tell people that the issue is not having a fire outbreak so that the fire service can go there to extinguish the fire. The major issue lies in fire prevention, which would be taken care of by fire sensitization. If people become aware of all these things, the carelessness we are talking about will be all over. So, what we do is go to schools, churches, markets, and anywhere we know people gather, to sensitize them. Sometimes, they don’t feel free having us around or happy that we are coming to disturb their peace. But at a time, they would see the need for them to listen to us, and know actually that they know nothing about fire safety. So with that, a lot of people have been involved and aware than they used to be. This time around, we are having a reduction in the number of fire outbreaks we record yearly, at this point.
One baffling thing about you is that you still get at the fore-front of firefighting. You have been spotted many times at the scene of fire outbreaks using the nozzle, instead of sitting back in the office to order your men around on the radio to get feedbacks. Why do you do this?
Laughs! As you can see, I am still a young man, jokingly anyway. You call me Agility. So, what is the essence of calling me agility? I am still agile. I am still a young man, a young officer, notwithstanding my position. Again, it’s just the passion I have for the job aside the nickname or whatever.
I learnt something from my late dad. I remember those days when we were young. My dad would wake up in the morning and he would take the used plates to wash. Sometimes you would see him sweeping the compound. When we came out and asked what he’s doing, he would say, “Do you know what I’m doing? I am only trying to tell you that this can be done and there are no age limits in doing this, so that tomorrow when you are asked to go and do it, you will not say you have grown above those things.” The same thing is applicable when it comes to firefighting. Let me tell you one thing. I always tell people to forget about chief fire officer, forget about the director. What I am is a firefighter, and I grew from the position of the rank and file to the position I am in today. So, I came in as a firefighter and did not join as a fire officer or maybe a chief fire officer. So, if I am a firefighter, I remain a firefighter and a firefighter remains a firefighter. And that is what I am.
What I do is to equally transmit the same thing to young officers, telling them that if I as the chief fire officer of the state can still go to the scene of fire outbreaks to fight fire, nobody should say that he has outgrown fighting fire. Everybody should be able to go there. The law of fire service says a fireman is always on duty. All of us are firemen. So if a fireman is on duty if there is a fire incident, he has to go in. You have to move from wherever you are to go and do that.
And again, this is all about humanitarian service. I am not just doing it for myself. I am alarmed with the notion that other people’s life and properties are in danger. Because of the humanitarian service nature that I have imbibed, I don’t feel relaxed whenever I get this distress call. Many thoughts of, “Someone entrapped or dying in the incident, properties are being wasted” is always haunting me. So the next thing you see is that I am moving.
Let me be honest with you, our men – the firefighters are always happy seeing me around. Likewise, the people around are happy seeing me around. What they say is the reason they always call me when there is an incident is that there may be some changes and not that I will throw myself inside the fire.
Again, I am not afraid of the fire. I have fought fire for 22 years and I am still fighting and not stopping. I am still young and eligible to do that. So, when there is an incident, I am moving in. I am not the type like some other ones will call me jokingly, they tell me, “Chief, you are not supposed to be doing this.” I will reply “I know, but am I not a firefighter?” I am a firefighter and so will still fight the fire, if there is need for that.
So, that is why you see me going there, it is not that I can’t stay in the office just like I am now, relaxing and enjoying myself. Or when there is a fire incident I will stay in my house and detail people to go. But the passion and looking at it from the angle of humanitarian service, I can’t just stay at home to watch all those things happen. That is why you see me go there, and from there I teach the younger ones that this thing can be done and this is how it can be done.
We have equally seen the state governor, Willie Obiano, at several fire incidents, many of those times either interrogating or giving you directives. It seems the governor has great interest in the state Fire service…
(Breaks in) Not only the fire service, pardon me! Anambra state is being taken care of by our Executive Governor, Chief (Dr.) Willie Obiano. We will call him the safety-conscious governor. In fact, if you go anywhere today, people are saying it on the social media and traditional media that Anambra is the safest state. They know why they said it because our governor is a safety-conscious governor; anything about safety is his problem. He wants it to be done and wants to achieve it. Anambra security and safety is one of his ideas, he empowers everything. Today, he is trying to reposition fire service to the standard which it’s supposed to be. We have been having meetings and a committee is set up and the repositioning is going on. Step by step we are getting there.
So what he does is that he wants to see that the Anambra State Fire Service becomes the best in the country. And gradually, he is getting to that point.
But we thought it was something that you were doing that caught the governor’s attention to it.
Yes! The thing is this, for the government to recognize you, your agency or organization, even when there is nothing, I grew to learn in one of the organizations I belonged then, that you make out something out of nothing. You create things even when there is nothing for you do. You try and create something. This is because people are becoming aware that Anambra State Fire Service is credible, is working and then the government has no other choice than to key in, and actually to notice what you are actually doing. It will equally attract the government to come to your rescue even when you do not have anything and they will look into the service. But when you keep quiet, probably because you do not have the pen to write and you don’t want to probably go somewhere to look for where you can borrow a pen to write then you become adamant and you die there. What will happen is that people will never know that you are, but if you can rise up and tell people this is what we can do and this is what we want to achieve and because of limited resources this is where we can stop, then you have already created that effect. Then government will key in there, individuals will key in there, even institutions will equally key in there. This is because they have seen the gap, they have seen what you have done and know where you want to get to but because of limited things you have you could not get there, then they will try to accommodate and occupy that space. And that is how government comes in.
At every scene of an incident, his Excellency always comes there, and when there he always asks, “Where is the chief fire officer?” The next thing he sees is someone fighting fire, which is myself, I will come out and he would see me. The truth is that his Excellency is very happy when he sees even the chief fire officer doing all those things. He knows that probably he may not be doing it, but seeing that I am at the fore front doing all those things – leading, that is the most important thing, leading others to go and do those things and not saying behind. He is happy and as a result, he tries to see what he can do to elevate the fire service in Anambra state.
Again, you seem to be one of the most celebrated fire chiefs in Nigeria. To be sincere, we can recall from out part that you have won the Nigeria Safety Award for Excellence (9jaSAFE) three times now, the last being the Lifetime Achievement Award. Recently you got another award in Ghana. How does that make you feel?
Laughs… Honestly, I don’t know. I want to appreciate people. The public always recommend me for all these things, and I don’t know when. I must be honest with you that at this point I am happy receiving them. Nominations have been coming. I have up to 20 nominations that has been sent to me from different parts of the world. Cameroon, Dubai, and others. Sometimes I feel tired going for all these things. But that of Nigeria, I can remember, between last year 2018 and 2017, the award was uncountable. They kept on coming. Before that of Ghana, I was given the Man of the Year award in Abuja. From there this one came and I was recommended again. Even when I was in Ghana some people where calling me that they really want to recognize me. So, it kept on coming.
The sincere thing is this, those things are motivational factors. That is why when one sees me going to fight fire, I don’t know when I do them. It’s just that I enjoy fighting fire. Just as simple as that.
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So, from what people are seeing, they know why they recommend me and actually what they are recommending me for. All I know is that a group, an agency or organization will call me that I have been recommended for a particular award and we want you to come for the award and receive it. If it is one I can, I will just move to the place, receive the award and return to my station. And when people see me – a lot of them haven’t seen me in person but only on social media – everybody will start jubilating, exclaiming that they thought I would be a very big man or elderly. They don’t know it’s just a young man.
I enjoy all those things sincerely because it has been motivating me and taking me places. I must tell you today that within and outside the country that name Engr. Martin Agbili (Agility) is known. But they have never seen me and I have never gone to them; it’s just few places that I have travelled to.
We noticed you wrote a book, “The Rudiment of Firefighting, Safety and Prevention”. What is the book about?
That book took me seven years. There are two books. The other one is Fire Safety for Children. It took me seven years to produce those two books at the same time. To be honest with you, before I could publish that book, I had to sell my car. This is the pure truth. At a time, to publish a book was not easy, there’re a lot of things involved. When I was doing that I was doing it consciously and gradually. I did it for seven years. I can remember I launched that book in 2014.
The book we are talking about is a very big one. When I started doing that I started around 2007. That was when I started conducting the research and all that had to go into the book’s production. Finally I succeeded in 2014 and I tried to publish but there was no money. I ran around trying to raise money to publish the books, but no way. What I did was to do away with what I had to get what I wanted. So, it is on record, part of the university system has started using the book because it comprises a lot of things. It is very voluminous. So, they started using and are still using it now. I am trying to review the book now. I need to update with rich and latest information because 2014 to now is five years. I am also working on another book which by the grace of God, possibly by next year, I will be done with. I am trying to finish that by the end of this year, to make it the third book.
In the book there are a lot of things: the history of fire service, the electrical side which relates to fire, the building construction which relates to fire. In fact, it was the building construction area that attracted the university – the post graduate students have started using that particular one, the building construction aspect. The book in a nutshell, covers so many areas.
It is first of its kind in Nigeria. Many people see fire textbooks, but have not seen one like it. When I did the book launch, people from different parts of the country and walks of life graced the occasion. They are still expecting more from me. I am presently reviewing the book and shall soon send it back to the market for the people to see.
The Federal Fire Service Director recently complained that the National Fire Safety Code is outdated. Do you agree with that assessment?
Partly, I will agree with that. I said partly because every document needs review. That national fire safety code was launched in 2013, that is six years now. There are probably new things that they need to inculcate into the book or document. That is why I said partly, it is outdated. So, it is depending on the area they are placing their interest on. There are new things – day by day new things are coming out.
Another side to this is that it’s not just about having a National Fire Safety Code. It is also educating people about it and also domesticating it within the state level. I know cases of states where when the national fire safety code is mentioned they say it is not for them but for the federal level. So, it is left to the individual states to domesticate the fire safety code in their states so that people in the states will equally know about it. But in Anambra here, we are trying to domesticate it so that it will get down to the grassroots; we have already started doing that.
So from the question, I can say partly because every document needs review. It needs to be updated with recent things. So, I believe that is the area the director is talking about. I don’t think it’s everything in the 2013 national fire safety code that he is talking about. There may be some areas of interest which they want to upgrade or update in that particular document.
From all we have heard, it seems you are always working – writing books, fighting fire, attending a course or another, or you are in meetings. Do you ever have time to relax and unwind, and how do you engage in recreation?
(Laughs) Yeah, all work and no play, they say, makes Jack a dull boy. Sincerely, I have my leisure time. I enjoy myself, because if I don’t, I will not be that strong again and fit to be doing all that is expected of me. At my leisure times, I go out with friends; we stay around, we can drink and eat, just enjoy ourselves and they go our ways. This is because I have limited times for all these things, it doesn’t take the whole of the day. What I do, and being that I’m engaged in a lot of things, is to create an hour out of that limited time I have for recreation – to enjoy myself, look around and stay with friends.
And like you said, it’s always work all the time. The reason it’s like that like I said is because I am still a young man. What I cannot achieve at this age, then I don’t know when I can do that. It’s not when I get to my late 50s and 60s that I will do that. This is the time I can achieve those things and then at my later years I can now relax to enjoy what I have achieved at this period. I will need to get it done at this point so that I can enjoy it tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I don’t have time for myself. I work even in the night to do my research, read and prepare for any exams I have. That doesn’t mean I cannot create like an hour of recreation during the daytime to hang out with friends. Within this time, I don’t stay alone, I must stay with friends, one or two persons to chat up, look for ideas and equally enjoy ourselves. So, I have time for myself as well, not only fighting fire.
On a final note, what will be your message to fellow professionals and upcoming firemen?
From the look of things, safety is the watchword. I will always tell any young officer, “never you open your mouth to call yourself a fire safety professional. You are not. You have to go and update and upgrade yourself. You can only go there and fight fire. That is what you know, or you can talk little about fire prevention. But for you to become that fire safety professional, you must go out there and upgrade yourself. There are a lot of ways which you can do that so that you can now join issues with those people outside there.” This is because there are a lot of who are not fire fighters who know more about firefighting. So, if they know something about firefighting, you should equally go out there to know more about safety profession. There are a lot of courses they can take. We have policy of fire, we have the certified fire safety professional, there is one called certified safety professional (CSP). These are the courses you have to write the exams. We have NEBOSH, the ISPON exam where you become a HSE professional, HSE 1 &2, and the general HSE 1,2,3. They can always do that. And once they get it, no knowledge is a waste.
I will always tell the young ones, go there, fix yourself somewhere. Acquire knowledge and it will help you tomorrow. It will not always be firefighting all the time, so that you can also gain your ground out there to discuss fire and safety. If you are always going to the field to fight fire, you will not be able to stand out there to stand and talk. When you go, read, write exams, pass, it will encourage you the more to go out there to discuss fire.
I must be honest with you. It is not every fire fighter that can discuss safety. A fire fighter can only go out there to tell people what not to do to avoid fire outbreak. That is all. What about the safety issues and safety measures? He will not be able to do that. So, it is not about talking fire alone, the major thing which is the safety of the people there, he may not be able to go in there to discuss it. So, my advice is that they should extend their tentacles and know the areas they need to cover in order to become safety professionals.