CURTAILING FIRE OUTBREAKS IN NIGERIA

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Olasunkanmi H. Okunola canvasses strict enforcement of building codes and regulations

In recent years, disasters of various magnitude are becoming more frequent, intense, and geographically diverse in various communities across Nigeria. One of the most occurring and devastating disasters is fire outbreak, which has destroyed properties worth several millions of naira, rendered survivors homeless, jobless and compounded the suffering and poverty in the land. Most of these fire outbreaks, whether domestic, industrial, institutional, commercial, vehicular, or bush has become a common phenomenon across the country. The “World Life Expectancy Report” in 2016 ranked Nigeria first in the World for number of deaths by fire. It has reached a stage where questions are being legitimately raised as to whether Nigerian communities are literally on fire.

Most of the recent fire outbreaks have occurred in state facilities that are of great strategic value, thereby making fires an issue of public concern and debate. For instance, On April 8, Treasury House, a building housing the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF) was gutted by fire. Eight days later on April 15, it was also reported that the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) headquarters in Maitama, Abuja was also engulfed with fire. In a similar vein, the headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the popular Dugbe market in Ibadan were the next to record a fire outbreak just two days after that of the CAC. The month of May was not an exception as it was reported that fire destroyed two IDP camps in Borno State, the popular Ogbeogonogo market in Asaba and Oloyele market in Somolu, Lagos. These and many more point to the fact that Nigerian communities are vulnerable to the impacts of fire incidents. Consequently, communities in Nigeria have become centre of attraction to fire outbreaks of different magnitude.

This may be attributed to various factors such as frequent power outages, power surge, electrical sparks, illegal connection of electricity, improper electrical fittings, substandard building materials, defective or indoor use of generators. Other factors include storing up adulterated fuel at home, siting of filling stations and gas stations near residential and market places. Besides, inaccessibility to most residential areas and market places when there is a fire outbreak also compounded the problem. This is not unconnected with the chaotic nature of roads and unplanned environment of most Nigerian cities. Another major factor contributing to the increase in the occurrence of fire outbreaks in the country is the total neglect of fire safety measures during the design and construction phases of structures. Likewise, public or private buildings with fire extinguishers, fire and smoke detectors, fire exits, warning signs and designated assemble fire points are hard to come by in the country.

Over the years, response to fire outbreaks in Nigeria has been unanticipated, unplanned and often poorly coordinated so much so that response could be as bad as the disasters and often compounded the impact of disasters on persons affected. Some states in Nigeria do not have effective and functional fire service stations and those that have are not evenly distributed across their territories. Typical example of this was the recent fire outbreak in Onitsha, Anambra State, that razed over 500 lock-up shops on Iweka Street Market, an incident that caught the state fire service unprepared to intervene. It took the effort of firemen from Delta State Fire Service that were drafted to put out the fire. Equally appalling was a heroic video of a man with a bucket trying to extinguish huge blaze on the roof of a five-storey building in Balogun market, Lagos. This clearly depicts lack of preparedness by federal and state fire services to manage the incidents of fire outbreaks in the country.

To buck this trend, all hands must be on deck by disaster management stakeholders at the local, state and national levels to take proactive-based approaches on fire outbreak prevention and control. The starting point is the strict enforcement of development control regulations that guilds building development against fire outbreak. This would give room for adequate setbacks, widening of roads for easy access to fire services, siting of buildings and consideration for fire safety measures during the design and construction phases of buildings such as use of non-flammable building materials and provision for warning signs and designated assemble fire points in buildings. Also, living in a house without fire extinguishers and smoke detectors should no longer be an option.

Equally important is the enforcement of fire safety regulations. This can be carried out by ensuring that fire safety regulations are consistently followed by households, public institutions and commercial entities in the country. This also includes the rehabilitation of the electrical wiring system (one that follows standard regulations during installation), proper use and handling of combustible materials and installation of fire hydrants.

It is also suggested that the issue of public education be intensified within the country. Both the Fire Service and the Disaster Management Agencies should embark on an intensive educational campaign among the residents regarding fire prevention and safety measures. Residents are expected to know what to do in case of fire in terms of first aid treatment and emergency exit rules pending the arrival of the fire fighters.

Finally, there is need for governments to provide and evenly distribute fire service stations in all the strategic locations of each state for disaster preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response and recovery. It is also imperative to make sure that all the facilities provided and distributed are well equipped and functioning. In the like manner, NEMA as the coordinating agency for disaster management in Nigeria should sensitise the state and local governments on the importance of setting up, funding and equipping their own emergency management agency in order to localise disaster risk management practices in Nigerian communities.

Dr Okunola is Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Specialist