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Attacks can’t deter me from saving lives – Anambra CFO, Agbili

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Engr. Dr Martin Agbili is the Director of Fire Service in Anambra state. In this interview with PRAISE NECHEREM, Agbili shares his 24-year experience in fire-fighting, including his four years as the Sheriff of Fire Service.

What informed your joining the Fire Service?

The man that fired my interest and assisted me in securing this job was CFO Sir Moses Ezekwo, now late. From the time we were living in Enugu, there was this big gully close to our house. The gully always had flammable effluence from the Nigeria Railway Corporation premises which, once it heated up, ignited fire. The primary school I attended was also very close to the scene such that, once we heard the siren from the fire service truck, I’d come out to watch them, particularly one man I was interested in. I neither knew him nor his name but I liked the way he would jump out from the truck, run up and down to ensure quick quenching of the fire. I just fell in love with the man. I told my parents that, though I wanted to be a medical doctor, I liked fire fighters.

After the creation of Anambra state, the man, Ezekwo, became the first Director of Fire Service in the state. He was a native of Nise in Awka South local government area of the state. Meanwhile, his son and I became friends and attended the same secondary school in Awka. After secondary school, there was employment opportunity into the state fire service and the man asked if I was interested. That was how I joined fire service in 1997. Even as a director, the man was still fighting fire. The same passion he worked with, the same I carry on with my duties. The same way he fights fire, that’s the same way I do.

How was the Fire Service before you came on board and how is it now?

There’s been a lot of innovations. Before now, awareness about Fire Service in the state was low. We were able to increase our public awareness campaign, believing that the first thing, apart from fighting fire, is to prevent it through fire safety sensitisation. That we have been able to achieve 80 percent. We’ve been able to visit churches, markets, companies to educate and sensitise people about fire safety management and prevention because that’s the primary thing fire service stands for. 

Governor Willie Obiano has done a lot for the agency. For the first time in the history of the agency in the country, the hazard allowance for fire fighters was reviewed upward (from N10 to N20,000) in 2019.

Moreover, recently, we got approval for the employment of 120 more fire fighters after we cried out about lack of personnel. For the first time in the history of the state, such bulk number of officers were engaged at the same time. The government also assisted us in the maintenance and procurement of fire equipment, because most of the fire trucks we were using were not only outdated, but aged – 15 to 20 years old. If you visit the major markets in the state, you’ll notice construction of overhead tanks installation of fire hydrants. We trained security men and leaders in the market in first aid fire-fighting using the installed fire hydrants and hoses.

After the Onitsha fire incident, we now have fire stations within some of the major markets like Onitsha main market, Ochanja and Ogidi. We’re looking forward to more. We have one in Aguleri and one at the new international airport. Another plan is inculcating fire safety into the school curriculum so we catch pupils and students young in the work of fire-fighting. We believe involving them at that stage would go a long way in reducing cases of fire outbreaks as they contribute more to fire incidents.

Undoubtedly, these feats couldn’t have been achieved without some challenges?

Yes, amidst all these achievements, we’ve been challenged by funding. Although this is not peculiar to Anambra, the truth is that government has not been able to fund fire service the way it ought to. However, we’ve been able to maximise the little support we’ve received from the government. Funding is crucial to the day-to-day activities of the office. Delay in responding to fire incident due to lack of diesel has now been taken care of as we can now refuel from some designated filling stations.

We still need more hands, though. Every fire truck needs at least six men. Even with the 120 new personnel, we’re still challenged because more fire stations are being created. Meanwhile, some officers are exiting due to retirement. We’re working on the modalities for engaging young volunteers. It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage people in volunteer work in this part of the world. There may be need for a budget for that in view of the challenge of engaging people on freewill volution. Though those who assist us in fighting fire before our arrival could be seen as volunteers, we’re thinking of making it more formal.

Your men had severally been accused of late arrival to fire incident scenes. How are you tackling this obvious challenge? 

Reason is that fire service stations are not everywhere. I think one sure way of tackling this challenge is to establish mini fire stations across the state. This will go a long way in reducing the distance fire fighters normally cover whenever fire occurs. We need fire-fighting units. For example, we don’t have stations in Awka North. That’s why we emphasise fire prevention. People should adhere strictly to fire safety rules by ensuring they avoid anything that can trigger fire outbreak. 

Mind you, our calculation of arrival to fire scene is different from that of the victims of fire incident. We calculate arrival time from when we were alerted of the fire incident, not when the fire started burning. Our major challenge is always the distance between the fire station and where the fire outbreak occurred. Besides, we always tell the public that fire fighters are not the cause of the fire. We’re only coming to assist them in fighting the fire which they themselves caused. Rather than inform us immediately they notice the fire, they would be running helter-skelter, trying to quench the fire. They only remember to alert us when the fire gets out of hand.

Another ugly experience is the attack of our officers and destruction of our equipment. One wonders what those who engage in this nefarious act tend to achieve. We keep appealing to the general public to understand with us. I’m sure if fire fighters are allowed to carry guns, these attacks on officers will not be happening. Though they’re trying to introduce fire police, for me, I don’t believe in that because fire-fighting is a humanitarian service. They’re supposed to be working closely with the people they’re serving. If you arm them, you’re exposing them the more. Besides, those you’re working for might be running away from you for lack of confidence. 

What gives you satisfaction in this job amidst all these prevailing challenges?

I’m a humanitarian. And if you’re one, just like those in the Red Cross, you don’t fear danger so long as you want to save lives. Your goal is to assist humanity. Once I hear of any fire outbreak, I suspend everything to attend to that emergency. There’s no part of the state they don’t call me from. I don’t feel relaxed because I know people’s lives and property are in danger. Whether they throw stones at me or not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve sustained lots of wounds while fighting fire in this state. But that’s not enough to stop me. Humanitarians don’t care about losses. They don’t look at the negative side of things.

Which particular day can you say was your worst day in this profession?

To be honest with you, I have lots of ugly experiences in the job but the heaviest of them all was that of October 16, 2019, the fateful day we witnessed fire outbreak in Onitsha. It was the worst day because, at a time, I really contemplated quitting the job because I received lots of bad calls. I was called all sorts of names; my name and pictures went viral. That’s when some people called for my sack. If you google my name now, you’ll see the sack story. People were calling me within and outside the country. The pressure was so much on me.

But the truth is that if I had my way, I would have left the state. On the second thought, reflecting on what I’d achieved and where I was headed, I said ‘no.’ Meanwhile, within that time, many organizations were calling me to work for them especially when they heard that I’d been sacked. I think I received about five different invitations for interview which I didn’t even apply for. To tell you the truth, one of the biggest of them was Dangote. To be frank with you, I don’t know why God kept me in Anambra Fire Service till now.

Any advice to your officers and men?

To my fellow fire fighters, I wish to share my experiences with them as a way to motivate them. I’ve passed through lots of hurdles since 1997. I’ve endured a lot. I’ve sustained injuries in the line of duty. I remember the day I had to enter the pit toilet to rescue a baby, precisely July 3, 2000. Although the baby died, it was one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken. I thought I would never make it. By the grace of God, I came out alive. It was a successful operation. 

Endurance is the watch word in Fire Service. As a fire fighter you have to endure lots of things. Focus is also important. Believe in yourself so you can excel. If you can’t, it becomes a problem because you’re the one to push yourself to wherever you’re going to be. You also have to develop yourself. Don’t wait for government to do it for you. I came into the service with SSCE. Today I’ve done lots of certification, academically and otherwise. Yet, I’ve continued to read and research so as to improve myself. Those yet to acquire formal education, it’s not yet late to acquire knowledge and certificates in order to upgrade yourself.

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