Assistant Comptroller General (ACG) Opetunsin Julius is the Director of Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Fire Service. In this interview with PAUL OKAH, he gives statistics of fire incidents across the FCT, challenges the agency faces, even as he gives tips on how residents can prevent fire outbreaks, especially in the dry season.
There have been a number of fire incidents in the FCT, do you have statistics of these incidents?
From January to October this year, we received about 280 fire calls and 21 rescue calls. We are yet to compile that of November and we just entered December. So, that’s the general statistics for now.
How proactive is the agency in responding to distress calls?
Our response time in the FCT is five minutes. We are able to achieve this because of the number of fire stations we have spread across the FCT.
We have nine stations in the city centre and one in each of the area councils, making 14. So, with that spread, it gives us enough time to respond to fire outbreak and it also makes it easier for us.
Even if you are calling from Kwali, there is a station that turns up almost immediately. In case they are overpowered, they will call the station that is closest to them for back up.
In a nutshell, our response time to distress calls is five minutes. We have been persistent and consistent over time.
What would you say was the cause of these fire outbreaks?
Fire outbreaks are not limited to just one cause. Removing the natural causes, most fire outbreaks we witness, especially in the FCT, are as a result of what we term either negligence or carelessness.
Negligence in the sense that some people would say it is not their portion to experience fire outbreak. Inasmuch as we say it is not my portion, we still see fire happening every day. So, we need to be more careful on how we approach fire related issues.
It is mostly things we do consciously or unconsciously that leads to most of these fire outbreaks. Like now, if you want to leave your office, especially now that the heat is coming, somebody will leave the AC on, leave some of the electrical appliances on and is talking outside. Once this continues overtime, it could lead to fire outbreak.
From our statistics, about 75 per cent of fire outbreaks in the FCT are electrically related as a result of the use of electrical equipment we interface with on a daily basis. So, it is purely an act of negligence and carelessness on our own part though the causes of fire outbreaks are many and cannot be exhausted.
Also, in the homes, how do we handle some of our cooking utensils? People are now shifting from using kerosene stoves to gas cookers. How do we manage them? Some people will keep both the cylinder and burner inside their kitchen. I am talking about the likes of 12kg cylinder that, with pipe, you can link with the burner in your kitchen.
Maybe because of thieves, somebody will now move the cylinder and burner inside the kitchen. In case of an outbreak, you cannot contain such a fire because the gas will keep supplying and the fire will keep igniting and you cannot even have access. By the time the accumulation of that heat overpowers the cylinder, it blows up and could be as loud as a bomb blast.
How often do you hold sensitisation for residents?
It has become part of us to hold sensitisation campaigns for residents. We have a programme we roll out every year, especially during the dry season, our annual dry season campaign.
We normally flag it off at the Palace of the Esu Garki and in most cases, depending on the availability of funds we normally target the first week of December to the 4th week of April.
It is expected that by May, we should be entering the rainy season. So, most of our activities must have been subsidised. Also, we have the Fire Prevention Unit that goes to all the business centres, markets and residential buildings to sensitise them on fire outbreak and to ensure compliance of some of the information we dish out.
We have an enforcement unit that always go out to check the information. Recently, we have rolled out safety initiatives in schools. We are doing that in partnership with FCT Universal Basic Education Board and Fire Fighters Magazine. We are going round all the Junior Secondary Schools in the FCT to sensitise them and also initiate fire safety clubs. We have been doing a lot of that in the city centres.
We want to target also the area councils. We also go to the media. We go to a lot of radio houses just to carry out the awareness.
Are your equipment up to date?
I just told you that we have 14 fire stations across the FCT. All those fire stations are functional. You cannot term a station functional if the equipment are not there. So, all our stations are functional and our equipment are up to date.
However, talking of up to date equipment, we need to apply some level of caution, because the world is dynamic. What you will see today as being up to date, if you go on the internet now, you will see the latest technology. So, at our own level, our equipment are up to date. However, if you look round the FCT, there are a lot of high raising buildings coming up, but we don’t have enough equipment to commensurate with the high raising buildings. You can’t use a normal fire appliance to fight fire in a building that has gone up to the 3rd, 4th or 5th floor.
A normal appliance cannot fight fire there successfully. It would need a length of hose to go there and fight fire. And the higher it goes, the lower the pressure. You need specialised equipment like Hydraulic Platform to fight fire in those places. But in the FCT, we don’t have that for now. So, when you talk in that respect, you will discover that we are not there yet.
Though we have written severally and it has been rolled into the budget. We are trusting that it would be approved very soon and that we will have at least one Hydraulic Platform. The movement of the platform from here to Wuse will not take you the normal five minutes of response time. It is just like a caterpillar.
But there are allegations of fire fighters arriving late to scenes?
I would not say the victims are lying, but you should ask them the time they called Fire Service to claim that fire fighters came in late. There are two different things: your house is on fire and fire service doesn’t know. It is now left for you to call fire service on time for us to respond. Maybe when you don’t have the Fire Service number and it is even a neighbour or a friend that you called and they now try to call fire service, all these times are built into the emergency. If not for the awareness that we are carrying out, most people didn’t have Fire Service number. This is not healthy because, when you have the number you can call immediately when there is an emergency.
Otherwise, somebody can leave his house in Maitama and come to report to us in Asokoro that there is fire in his place. It is what we call a running call. By the time we mobilise to get to Maitama, of course, you should expect a hopeless situation.
So, the problem may not be directly from our own side, but on the side of the responding public. Apart from the 112 toll free emergency number, we have our own number: 092906118. It is our central control number in Asokoro, which is the headquarters of FCT Fire Service. If you put a call to this number, even if you are calling us from Kuje, we will turn up Kuje Fire Station to respond to you immediately.
Are there cases fire outbreaks were successfully put off?
There are a lot of cases when we put out the fire. We have never been to a scene and come out believing it is a hopeless situation. If we are to give you some of our clips to watch, you will attest to our success.
Our men are always proactive. We receive a lot of commendations from residents on how our men successfully extinguish fire.
So, does the agency receive enough fund to deliver on its mandate?
There is no agency that doesn’t have challenges, especially when it comes to funding. Of course, there is the issue of administrative bottlenecks. Files have to go through different people, which is good but we should be able to know that once we are dealing with an emergency, some of those things can be soft peddled, because we are talking about lives and property.
So, basically, prompt release of funds, devoid of most of these administrative protocols, is imperative for us to function effectively
What other challenges are you facing?
Let me put it on record that the Minister of the FCT, Malam Musa Bello, has been doing wonderfully well. We should give it to him. We always go to him for help. We have a challenge of water. If you go round the city, you will discover that there are no hydrant points anywhere. A hydrant point is where fire fighters come to take water to fill their appliances to go and fight fire.
To us as an agency, the minister has made provisions for water tankers. So, as soon as you see our fire fighters going out, there is a water tanker driving behind. In case you run out of water, you can be able to refill and finish the operation.
The minister is trying and I know that he is working on the Hydraulic Platform we wrote to him about. Even in terms of kit as firemen, the minister is also trying. Of recent, he awarded a contract for us to have assault gears, specialised kits we need to fit fire.
Do you collaborate with FEMA and other agencies in disaster management?
We are almost playing the same role. But you should look at FCT Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the line of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). NEMA regulates and supervises. So, FEMA was initially inaugurated to oversee emergencies in the FCT. When you come to emergency responding, we are emergency responders. So, there is no way you can separate the two from each other.
The coming of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development has not affected us in the FCT.
What advice do you have for residents regarding prevention of fire incidents?
The dry season is always here as we use to say. It is for us to be more conscious of how we use igniters. We should have fire service number. Somebody will say it is not my portion, but it has been happening. That number that you have will be able to save yourself from inferno. It is just to make sure you call quickly. There is something we use to fight fire when it is still small. It is the fire extinguishers. It is very important for us to have fire extinguishers in our homes and cars. Also know how to operate them. We see instances where someone will pick an extinguisher and throw into a fire. It doesn’t explode like a bomb, so you must know how to operate a fire extinguisher.
The attitude of motorists is also a problem. There are instances when, while responding to a distress a call, many drivers will not give us the right of way, even with our siren on. You will see drivers blocking us or even attempting to block us. This is very bad of drivers, so people should respect fire fighters responding to emergencies. These are key information or advice for FCT residents especially in this dry season.
All our annual leave stops in October. No fireman goes on leave after October 31st. We don’t start enjoying the leave for next year until March or April. That has been our practice; that is to tell you that we are fully on ground for any eventuality. With us FCT, is covered.