Again and again, the news waves reel with reports of new incidents of fire outbreaks in different parts of Nigeria. One day it is a market fire disaster somewhere in Lagos Island or Onitsha, and another day it is a burning car that ordinarily could have been saved by the mere presence of a functional fire extinguisher in the vicinity.
It is disturbing. A recent official report put the 2022 losses to fire at N2 trillion; which is almost double the annual budget of Lagos state.
Fuel tanker fire that razes homes, businesses and vehicles are rampart. And the losses keep multiplying.
The losses from many of these incidents can indeed be humongous. And to the nation also they are monumental. They take a toll on individual fortunes. They result in injuries, disability and death. And they deplete fortunes and prospects.
One very obvious reason why fire incidents are so costly in Nigeria is the lack of attention given to fire-fighting overall. Personnel are poorly trained, ill-motivated and poorly equipped.
There are very few and functional fire-fighting trucks, related equipment and safety gear for the men to work with. There is poor morale, low sense of dedication and a general sense of disillusionment. Often access to fire incident locations is difficult because of poor condition of roads and improper building designs and town planning.
While the hardware and tools part of the challenge can be said to be necessarily traceable to the sorry state of the Nigerian national economy, this would only be half the point as even in the worst of situations, right thinking people and governments also know that they have to place maximum priority on not losing what they already have just because they do not have enough.
Besides, the reality is that for many of the fires that have been contained, even the state has had to call upon and rely on the fire-fighting gear of the more private sector organisations operating in the country that have prioritized that component in their business model. So, it is first a challenge of poor policy design.
Equally, there is very low public education on how to proactively prevent, and/or fight fires. When the average fire outbreak takes place, good samaritans mercifully rush to the scene to help.
But more often than not, they almost always begin by throwing buckets of water at the problem, irrespective of the type of fire being fought. This is in addition to challenges that come from crowding, particularly when the contributions of not a few of the hangers-on is to bemoan the growing losses without adding real value to the task at hand.
Then, there are issues of law enforcement failings and reported compromise of public safety compliance authorities. How come we still have high rise buildings without installed sprinklers, even when the laws have insisted that it should not be so? How come the required zoning distances in between buildings in suburbs continue to be breached? How come the roads leading to some segments and settlements, even in neo-emergent estates are so narrow as not to permit easy ingress and egress for emergency workers in times of disasters?
There are also issues of false consciousness and poor attitudes on the part of the general population, as, for example, when people are reminded of the need to proactively prevent fire outbreaks or take steps to mitigate losses to themselves and their assets in the unfortunate instance of their being probably affected at one point in time and they verbally dismiss it with the ‘it’s not my portion’ cliche. Yes, accidents are not anyone’s portion, but statistically they do occur.
One other aspect of the challenge is that, though recoverable, a lot of the destruction that comes in the wake of the fire disasters occurring in the country have sadly become somewhat final and irrecoverable on account of the fact that victims and their assets are not covered by insurance.
This is caused by the yet very low insurance penetration ratios in the country and a lot more needs to be done to show members of the public, and particularly, business owners, that the final beneficiary of insurance is indeed the insured.
Finally, that fire disasters are almost as old as the emergence of fire on the scene is not in doubt.
However, even as science and education have made it quite possible to address and resolve many other challenges that are equally as old as fire, a lot more needs to be done to address the fire menace in Nigeria. We must do much more to stem the avoidable losses that come in the wake of ‘the fire next time.’