Mr Olatunji Afoke is a former Director of the Lagos State Fire Service. He is highly respected among fire stakeholders for introducing far-reaching reforms that helped to reposition the service for better performance. In this interview with Safety Record’s John Ogunsemore, he explains the challenges facing fire services in Nigeria and how he helped to bridge the gap of equipment deficit and poor welfare of firemen in the service…
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself for the sake of our readers?
My name is Olatunji Afoke. I hail from Epe in Lagos State. I had my primary and secondary education until I joined the Lagos State Fire Service in 1973 as one of the pioneer staff. After the rudimental stage of training in fire safety, we started as the first set of fire service trainees at Ikeja. It was after I joined the service before I tasted the four walls of a university. I studied Industrial Law at the University of Lagos up to diploma level and I studied Public Administration from the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria in Badagry. I studied International Fire Safety in Fire Service College, Britain.
When did you become the fire service chief?
I had served in various capacities, first as Intermediate Fire Officer-in-Charge of Administration, where again I shared as the Chief Fire Officer, Administration. I was serving in that capacity for a number of years before I was moved to Fire Prevention and Safety as the head. I was combining the two roles as Fire Prevention and Safety Officer and Administrative Officer. It was after that I, by the grace of God, became Director of Fire Service in Lagos State.
What year was your appointment as Director of Fire Service made official?
I became the Director of the Fire Service on July 22, 2005. Incidentally, it was a day to my birthday.
You are regarded among stakeholders as one of those that helped revitalise and reposition the Lagos State Fire Service. How were you able to do that?
I would not like to ascribe every success to myself but to the staff of the fire service and truthfully to the strength, power and wisdom from God. Before I took over the mantle of leadership of the Lagos State Fire Service, it had been part of what I desired. I desired to reposition and replace the fire service: one, in the area of professionalism and two, in the area of making sure that staff welfare was adequately looked into. Professionalism in terms of making sure that the fire service personnel had job satisfaction. How do I mean? Prior to my taking over as Director of Fire Service, some of the staff had been stagnated into a particular level in the service. Of course, there had been some submissions and appraisals that had gone to the government. But to the glory of God, when I took over, I wrote submission to the government telling them that the fire service is a highly technical area and there are two basic things that you need to operate in the fire service.
One is equipment which must be appropriate and adequate – adequacy in terms of number and appropriateness in terms of the right equipment. This is because if you have so many equipment without having the right type, you will not be performing effectively. If you have trucks in numbers, the one you will use in terms of oil fire will be quite different from the one you will use in house fire.
Added to that should now be welfare of the personnel. Now in terms of equipment, again to the glory of God, I was able to make submissions and the government – first in the history of Nigeria and, if I am not mistaken, maybe in Africa – made Lagos State Fire Service the first to have 60 fire trucks at a time. I think it’s a fortune. It’s unprecedented. We had 60 firefighting trucks coupled with some other equipment that were purchased for effective operations in the fire service.
And in the area of welfare of staff, when I took over in 2005, the hazards allowance used to be N10 – ridiculous N10. I took over in July. When it was December, some staff asked what the Director would give them as Christmas bonus. I told them to wait and see. But by that December salary, the government started paying N10,000 as hazard allowance. The people were jubilating. That’s part of welfarism that would encourage people to perform. Again I mentioned that some people had already been stagnated on a certain level because of their level of education. I wrote to the ministry and they asked me to come and defend my submission. I told them that to train a full-fledged fireman takes about five years. How do I mean? They go for basic training for about six to nine months. There will also be industrial training which will be on-the-job training because there are various areas of operations in the fire service. We have the administrative area, workshop, inspectorate division which houses the fire safety and prevention in commercial and all other industrial, and government establishments. Each and every one of them must have been attached to each of these units for maybe one or two years maybe on rotation basis. It will take about four or five years to produce a full-fledged fireman. And if you produce a full-fledged fireman in five years, it is a fortune. They take salaries, allowances and others. If you are losing that type of people into other areas it means you are using the fire service as training ground, because they are sellable in other areas. So I told them as part of my defence that, ‘Look, it takes the government a fortune before you can train a full-fledged fireman and if we’re losing them to various other organisations, that means that we are using the fire service or the state government as a training ground for other people to enjoy.’ They asked me what I wanted exactly and I replied that ‘These people have been on the job, some of them have gone for various educational upliftment, so they need to be promoted and taken away from stagnation’. The government has a rule that you must have gone for other training before they can be moved up and they’ve gone for those trainings, so the only thing was for them to be promoted. By the grace of God, they moved everybody and it is on record that some people were promoted two to three times within three years because the promotion they ought to have taken was backdated with effect from the date they were supposed to take it. It’s unprecedented and it improved the fire service.
Those two things – equipment and welfare of personnel, God assisted me to do some things.
I remember then that I made a submission to the government that we should improve the NCO – that is Non-Commissioned Officers’ dormitory. We did that and again, I established a library in the fire service. I had the experience when I read Public Administration in Administrative Staff College of Nigeria. When I was writing my project, I went into their library as I had to do my literature review. I looked at it and all I could use was the encyclopaedia to check what was fire service, fire service equipment and things like that. There were no books. I complained to the Director-General and the librarian and they said it was not possible. They stood up and we went there together. We couldn’t find. That was an area that I told them (the state government). Most of the fire services in Nigeria need library. What I established there then was a library where we had cubicles. If you’re on duty and less busy or off-duty, you can come into the library, although it was not a large place. A library doesn’t necessarily have to be a large area. It’s not about the structure but what you have in there. We requested and placed orders for some fire engineering books and put them there with television so that when you go to emergency situations and feel it, you could come back for something I called ‘post-mortem’. Post mortem in the sense that you would be able to look at what you’ve done to check if it was done accurately or wrongly. Then you would be able to see yourself while we’re editing. That’d serve as a bit training ground. I did all those.
The staffs were happy because I did a kind of research on my own and I used it as part of my argument when the state government called me to ask how they could improve on the welfare of staff of the fire service. I told them that about 90 to 95 per cent of people in the fire service were frowning and statistics and research lecturer told me that a good research will sensitise another report. Now we asked why. That’s not good enough if 90 to 95 per cent of people in the fire service are frowning. So that sensitised another report. I went into it again and discovered that there was no job satisfaction, because people felt they could not make progress in the fire service. If you cannot move ahead, you are stagnated in a place. I thank God for the government functionaries for approving those things for people to move forward from where they’re stagnated. Although there’re many things, those are part of the things that God used me to revitalise the fire service.
Can it be said that improvement in the welfare of staff was your greatest achievement as fire service director?
I wouldn’t want to pass anyone off as the greatest but I know that any organisation where the staff are not happy, that organisation’s development will be very slow, if it is not stagnated. But if the staff are happy, agile and skilful, and they are passionate about the job… Fire service duty is life-saving. Anyone going for fire service duties must have passion for the job. It is not enough for anyone to say that ‘well, I have this or that’. You must have passion for the job, because it is a highly technical and integral part of faculty of engineering. In the fire service college, you have all these faculties.
I equally like to bring in fire safety and public enlightenment. I stand to be corrected but I started the first fire safety enlightenment programme on radio on regular weekly basis. I am not saying that some might not have been doing one thing or the other. Even that formed part of the recommendations that the then Director of Fire Service, Mr. M. Ola-Ogunbanjo used to confirm my appointment as substantive Chief Fire Officer, not the director of fire service because he was director. Why did he use it? He looked at activities and records of fire and related emergencies in the public, within Lagos State anyway. In the past five years, when the regular weekly programme started, and after one year, the record of incidents dropped by 50 per cent and it was continuous for an upward of about five good years. The occurrences of emergencies in the public dropped by 50 per cent because (of) the public enlightenment, education…That’s why in any fire service, you must not joke with public enlightenment programme and that is residual in the fire prevention inspectorate unit in the fire service.
The Fire Protection Association of Nigeria (FPAN) is one of well-known associations in the fire sector. As the PRO of the body, what are its mandates?
The Fire Protection Association of Nigeria has been the right establishment that has not been given its right position. As the name implies, it’s Fire Prevention Association of Nigeria. We have the replica even in the advanced countries – fire protection, fire prevention association. What they do is to regulate. I know it is the government that regulates directly but FPAN acts and serves in advisory capacity not only to government but to industrial or commercial establishments. This advisory capacity is in terms of fire safety in companies, organisations, industries and commercial establishments. Fire safety in terms of developmental process of fire safety departments or units in organisations, and even in terms of training. Also in advisory capacity in equipment sourcing, making sure that there is right type of equipment because there is a proliferation of equipment in the society. It is part of the objectives of FPAN to ascertain and accredit what exactly is the right type of equipment for fire fighting – both the first aid, the lighter ones and the heavy-duty ones. And like I said, FPAN acts in advisory capacity to the government if they want to do anything regarding fire safety. It’s part of FPAN’s duty to give advice and ensure that certain things are regulated. When the fire services in the states witnessed some kind of retrogressive performances, FPAN wrote creditably to the governments itemising those things that needed to be done in order to improve the performance of the fire services and by extension improving the performance of the staff.
FPAN also has a say in the Fire Safety Code that the government has. When it was at its embryo stage, FPAN played a very big role in that particular area.
In a nutshell, part of FPAN’s duties is to advice the state governments, establishments in the public in terms of training and equipping companies and other areas within the confines of the state and Nigeria in general. But like I said, the right baby that has come to stay has not been given its right place; rightful place in terms of funding. FPAN needs funds to stand on its feet. It needs the backing and support of relevant safety organisations including the government itself. With that, I think sky is the limit.
Fire incidents in markets and other business concerns continue to be a challenge. What are associations like FPAN doing and how can they help to reduce such incidents to the barest minimum?
The government and FPAN have big role to play not only in market fires but fires generally in the public. But narrowing it down to fires in the market, about 80 to 90 per cent of fires occurring in market places start from between 7pm and 9pm, and even at midnight. What is that pointing to? Basically, that is when people must have closed from the market. It is common knowledge that majority of the people in market places sleep, cook and do all sort of things in the market. And when they cook or sleep, they use electrical appliances and that is when fire starts. Thank God that Lagos State Government has regulated market places such that all markets must close by 6pm and you don’t sleep in market. It is a law now in Lagos. Because fire could occur in the public either by commission or omission, it could also occur in markets. In organised markets, at least there should be a unit of firefighting staff in every market with at least a fire truck. Incidentally, in most of our market places, your guess is as good as mine that hardly will you find a fire truck. But it should be by standard that they should have them. And the people that will man those places as fire unit have to be trained as well. The structures in constructing market areas have to be put into consideration because these are other things to consider. If they are not the direct causes of fire, they can aid the spread of the fire. So Fire Protection Association of Nigeria by way of bringing people together, it is a routine now that at least on quarterly basis, there’ll be seminars, workshops in commercial establishments including market places. That’s one of the areas that Fire Protection Association of Nigeria has done that will improve the fire safety and prevention activities in market places. Basically, it has to be the government having its own role; Fire Protection Association of Nigeria having its own role and the two together can be able to do what’s needful.