Mr. Benjamin Opia is the Chairman of the NPA HSE Committee ensuring safety in the Ibru Yard tank farms. Currently a fireman with Ibafon Oil Limited, he is a veteran fireman of 44 years of professional standing. He sat with Safety Record’s Paul Mbagwu and John Ogunsemore to reminisce about his professional life over the years. Excerpt…
Can you introduce yourself for the benefit of our readers?
I am a Deltan. I was employed and trained by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). I started my training in 1975. On self-sponsorship, I entered Institute of Fire Engineering (IFC), United Kingdom. I went to the Chartered Institute of Logistics for advanced diploma. I was also trained by the Nigerian Institute of Safety Professionals (NISP). Also on self-sponsorship, I received training from Rapid Result College (RRC), London to enable me sit for NEBOSH. After that we’ve been going here and there for different courses to upgrade ourselves and keep ourselves abreast with various firefighting training and HSE.
After my retirement from NPA, I worked on so many installations – NNPC Jetty at Takqwa Bay, I spent some reasonable years there; Petroleum Wharf Apapa, New Oil Jetty, all at Dockyard and Takqwa Bay. When I left NPA, I took up a job from Central Fire Service and I was employed by Ibafon Oil Limited. After three or four years of service, I was made chairman of the NPA HSE Committee that I was a member of.
NPA is a regulator of those in the port premises at Tin Can, Ijegun tank farms, Folawiyo Jetty and Ibru Jetty, where we have all the tank farms. We all created the NPA HSE Committee. All of us work as a team, and that is the genesis of our success within those tank farms. Some of us, we have a common ground and we hold HSE meeting as well as fire service drills every month.
You said you started your fire training in 1975. What has the experience been since that time till now?
The experience has been very encouraging. It is a profession which I like. The experience makes me happy in the sense that I am involved in saving lives. And again, my experience there makes me a unique person. Why did I say so? Whenever an incident happens, people will be running away while I will be running into the scene. That alone makes me happy and secondly, it gives me wisdom. It kept me in an emotional high standard; that is, I will be able to perform whenever I discover risk and hazard in any environment. I will be able to know what I can do at any given time. That’s why I talked about wisdom. The wisdom there is that in any situation I find myself, the first thing I do is to think safety. I try to assess what is happening there for the sake of my life and the lives of others.
Safety is a priority in the oil sector, in a tank farm in your case, but appears to be neglected in many other sectors. Why is that so?
It is so because in a tank farm, the environment is always volatile, unlike in some other industries where the risk is not so high. The risk of fire and explosion in a tank farm is always very high. And those who invested their money into the business will be very concerned. Even the workers will be very concerned. If there is an incident in the workplace, the owner of the business will suffer, the worker will suffer, and his family will suffer too. So, we take working safe very seriously. We are very committed to preventing fire outbreak all the time. That is why we put all facilities in place to suppress or control any fire hazards. The owners of those businesses know the amounts of money they invested, so they dare not forego putting standard facilities in place to save their business.
You were selected for special recognition in the 9jaSAFE Awards and Firefighters Appreciation Dinner for combating fire in the oil sector. You have also combatted many fire incidents in the Apapa tank farm. What have you learnt from these incidents?
The experience I have from those fires is for us to create awareness for people because most of the fire incidents result from human factors. Human factors as a result of roles and responsibilities: when you fail to perform your job well. For example, during handing-over duties, you must ensure to brief the man taking over from you. Secondly, make sure that all risks are properly controlled to avoid such fire and explosions. Training of personnel is also important. We took care to ensure that all these things were in place to avoid challenges that would make us lose our business.
To have been mentioned as one of the leading figures that fought fires in the tank farm, you must have shown exemplary leadership qualities. Did it make you feel like a hero and can you paint a picture of what you went through during that period?
For example, the issue of a fire at Ibru Jetty that emanated from the activities of vandals. They got the product and it caused a fire in their boat and there was a PMS tanker discharging. We mobilised all the safety personnel down to that place and made use of the fire truck installed because we have a common fire truck that we use. And on my own side, I had closed from work and was at home. When the call came in, I immediately ran towards the jetty. It was around some minutes to 12 in the night. My driver picked me up and we immediately ran there. We connected all our appliances, although the boys were already there combating the fire before I arrived. When the second explosion happened, we retreated and then moved back in. We called for NPA tug because this fire had gone beyond the jetty to within the water. We had PMS tanks all around and a PMS tanker vessel was discharging. As at that time, we shut off all discharge and locked up all valves. We started battling the fire. When the second explosion happened, we retreated as I said and tried to locate the major seat of the fire. Then we got the fire extinguished through the use of chemical foam concentrate.
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What I learned from that is that if you don’t have those qualities as a fireman, you will not be able to do it. You must be courageous. You must be observant and observe what is happening. You must have physical ability, because without it too, you cannot combat those kinds of fire. And an inquisitive mind must be there. Those are kinds of qualities that a fireman must have before he can have interest in battling such kinds of fire.
Has there been an incident where you didn’t feel like going to battle the fire?
No, not at all, because of those qualities…In fact, it’s just like somebody who’s invited to go to a party to enjoy. That’s how we feel like when going to fight fire. I said earlier that if I happen to hear a fire siren, I will try to locate where it’s headed. It’s in my blood. If I happen to hear any emergency call, it’s there I’ll go.
You cut the figure of someone who derives satisfaction from what he does. As someone that has so much experience in this area, what advice do you have for young and upcoming firemen?
Most of the youths today want to enjoy life only. I told you that during our time, there were some that could not pass through that rigorous training. That training is a part of every fireman. I can encourage those young ones coming up to be courageous, to have inquisitive mind, to take initiative. In those days, a fireman was well built up because of the training that involves physical exercise. That’s just to enable us to handle sub suction hoses and all those kinds of fixed installations. Those things require physical abilities. So we encourage them to build themselves up, train themselves properly. You keep on training. If you don’t have opportunities, self-sponsorship could help you. If your employer cannot sponsor you, sponsor yourself. I sponsored myself to the level I am. I sponsored myself through the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. The same thing is applicable to Institute of Fire Engineering and NEBOSH, and some other courses that I’ve passed through. That is minus Sea School training for water activities which NPA paid for, although NPA is training staff today. So I encourage the young ones to receive such trainings and keep up training, reading and doing research. Unlike those days, now the internet has made it possible to learn online. Let them watch firefighting videos both home and abroad. Those ones too will encourage them to be courageous in attacking any fire.