Dr. Liman Alhaji Ibrahim is the controller-general of the Federal Fire Service (FFS). He recently marked one year in office. In this interview with CHRISTIANA NWAOGU, Dr. Ibrahim speaks o the challenges and achievements of the FFS, including the support the service has enjoyed from the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
What was the state of the Federal Fire Service before the present administration?
The Federal Fire Service (FFS) was, no doubt, in a pitiable state before the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. The situation was so bad that the general public lost confidence in the Service.
In Abuja, we had only two old fire trucks bought in the 1980s. In Lagos, we had only one, also bought in the 1980s. We were just managing them because they were not roadworthy. When we took them out for fire service or emergency, we had to pray to reach the scene of the incident. If they reached the scene, we would pray that they finished the operation successfully.
But all of that has changed now. President Buhari has displayed uncommon political will in repositioning the Federal Fire Service. He took the bull by the horn by appropriating enough funds for the FFS. So by 2016, with the budget the present administration approved for us, we were able to buy 23 firefighting vehicles and 15 water tankers of 10,000 liters capacity.
Again, in 2017, the Buhari administration approved for the Service to buy 21 firefighting trucks, recovery vehicles, and mobile workshops. In 2018, the Service was given enough money to buy another 23 firefighting trucks and eight rapid interventions. A fire truck is not something you go to the shelves and pick, you have to give specifications to the manufacturers and it would take six to eight months to make. They need that length of time for them to be able to access what they call chassis. So when we give a contract, the manufacturer has to go to another company to buy the chassis.
We are where we are now because we were able to buy these trucks. And this has helped us to expand our operations beyond Abuja and Lagos. What we did in 2016, we were able to establish zonal headquarters in the six geo-political zones and we deployed our personnel and equipment there. This was what I met on the ground.
When I came on board on March 26, 2019, I was able to access funds and took the delivery of more firefighting trucks. I had to expand our services; instead of having six zones, I created an additional six zones with the primary aim of improving our response time. This is because in managing the disaster, time is key and essential. So we currently have 12 zones and Abuja. In Abuja, we have 19 fire stations. In Lagos, we have 11 fire stations and in each of the six geo-political zones, we have two zones and each zone comprises two states.
I also realized that we were not doing well in terms of training and re-training. And this challenge was not only with the Federal Fire Service. So I made a proposal to the government and I got approval to establish a Fire Service Training School in each of the six geo-political zones.
That of North West has taken off in Katsina State and we have trained the first batch, both federal and state firemen. The next one would be South West in Ilesha, from where we would go to Maiduguri. We are to take off with these training schools because we have been given temporary structures to use.
Under the Buhari administration also, the population of firefighters in the country has risen from 1,200 to 5,860; we are almost 6,000 firefighters now. So we have enough personnel to handle fire disasters when they come.
In fact, under my watch, the Federal Fire Service has experienced the phenomenal transformation from a moribund department to a vibrant organization equipped with modern firefighting equipment and committed personnel.
In line with our national response strategy, we responded to 2,615 fire calls; saved 724 lives and assets worth N1.629 trillion between June and October 2019 across the country.
“With the deployment of the newly procured fire engines across the country to boost emergency response, FFS is now present in all the states of the federation and most responsive, saving lives and preventing humanitarian and economic disasters.
Are you satisfied with the federal government’s commitment to the FFS?
I am very satisfied with the level of support we have received from the present administration and what we are still enjoying. We were given money to refurbish 15 to 18 old firefighting trucks, and those old ones are still working till today. Every two years, we refurbish them in order to keep them in good shape. For the new ones, the federal government approved 96 firefighting vehicles and so far, we have taken delivery of 78, remaining 18, which are at various stages of manufacturing.
There was a gas explosion in Lagos recently. Were you able to play a role in that incident and to what extent?
You know, I visited the scene. When the explosion took place, my officer in Lagos got in touch; and I was here monitoring and co-coordinating. The Federal Fire Service, Lagos State Fire Service, and other stakeholders were all on the ground. In an explosion, the sound alone can bring down structures not necessarily the fire spreading, that is what explosion can do. Our role is to extinguish the fire, but when there is oil pipeline vandalism, the valve is shut up to close the supply. The only thing is we have to control it to avoid its razing buildings and structures.
I visited the scene and I was received by the director-general, Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA). It wasn’t the fire that did the destruction but the impact of the explosion. And what people should know is that when there is a gas leakage, gas is heavier than air, so it can displace the air and occupy the space and any little spark of fire will result in an explosion that is different from fire eruption.
The investigation is still ongoing because there are three areas that must be looked into which I am coordinating with the Lagos State Fire Service director, who is representing me in the governor’s committee probing the cause of the explosion.
In the past few months, we have heard stories of markets being gutted by fire. There were cases in Edo, Lagos, Kano, Cross River, and the Benue States. How did your men handle them?
I have spoken enough on market fires; as long as the market authorities allow people to sleep in their shops there will be fire outbreaks. Home activities are now brought into the market. People are ironing, cooking and when you are cooking you are using either gas or stove which is one aspect.
The second aspect is that people do illegal electricity connections in the markets. Third, every space made available for firefighting trucks to pass has been taken over by shops; so to get access to the market to fight fire outbreaks is a major problem. Fourth, there is no availability of water in these markets to fight fire incidents. We are engaging the market authorities, which are the local governments, not even state governments, to ensure that they consider the safety of people first.
Why all these things are happening is because they want to generate revenues, by all means, that is why the available space is being occupied. If these four issues I have mentioned can be addressed, it would minimize incidents of fire outbreaks in our markets.
If you look at Wuse Market after the incidents that happened around 2005 and 2007, Nasir el-Rufai, the then FCT minister, took the bull by the horn and addressed the issue. Since then, we have not recorded any major fire incident in Wuse Market. We enjoin other markets to emulate what Wuse Market did. We can enter there with our firefighting trucks and even if there is fire, the security officers can extinguish it even before our arrival.
Another market that has emulated Wuse Market is Sabon Gari Market in Kano. You know they had one terrible experience in the past where we were engaged by the state government and we submitted a report and gave recommendations which they worked on. Today, they have a fire station in Sabon Gari Market and access roads and networks for firefighting trucks. We also have our men in the market in case of any emergency.
With the number of firefighting trucks that you have now, how are you able to fuel and maintain them for emergency cases?
One of the terms of the contract is preventive maintenance. The supplier or manufacturer carries out two years’ maintenance, after which we engage the same manufacturer because these vehicles are sophisticated. For the fuelling, the government gives us enough money to fuel our vehicles. Every month we receive our overhead, including the fuelling of the vehicles.
What has been the impact of your partnership with the Defence Academy?
It has been three years since we entered a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Defence Academy to run PGD programs and Master’s degree in Risk and Disaster Management. The MoU has brought the FFS to the limelight. These programs are taking place here in Abuja at the National Fire Service Academy (NFSA). And the report reaching me so far is that people are impressed with what we are doing.
What legacy would you want to leave behind as controller-general of Federal Fire Service?
Before I leave office, I want to be able to cover the entire 109 senatorial districts in Nigeria. If the Federal Fire Service is able to do that alone, I will be satisfied. As I am talking to you, we have 774 local governments in Nigeria, but the fire service has a presence in less than 400 local governments; which is not good enough. I will, therefore, try to consolidate the zonal headquarters at the state command.
Again, I want to see the training schools move to their permanent sites and they are fully operational. We want to build the training schools to the point that other West African countries would patronize us.
I have promised to ensure that all the commands are equipped with modern firefighting equipment and well-trained firefighters ready to ensure the safety of all.