_Engr. Dr. Martin Agbili is the Director of Fire Service in Anambra State. In this interview with NOBLE TREASURE, the Chief Fire fighter shares his reasons for joining the Fire Service, as well as his 24 years experience in fire fighting and his 4 years achievements as the Sheriff of Fire Service
What informed your joining the Fire Service?
I joined the Fire Service 24 years ago, but took over the mantle of leadership in 2017. My interest for this job didn’t start today. The man that assisted me in securing this job was CFO Sir Moses Ezekwo, now late. Infact, I started seeing him right from the time we were living in Enugu. There was this big gully close to our house which always experience fire outbreak because all the oil coming out from the Nigeria Railway Cooperation passed through the gully to settle there. As a result, there’s always heat there, and once it heats up, it ignites fire. The primary school I attended was also very close to the scene. So, once we hear the siren from the fire service truck, I’ll come out to watch them. There’s always one particular man I was interested in. Though I don’t know him, nor his name, one thing I like about the man is the way he runs around in the process. Before you know it, he has already jumped out from the truck, running up and down to ensure quick putting off of the fire. I just fell in love with the man. I told my parents then that though I wanted to be a medical doctor, but I liked fire fighters.
After creation of Anambra state, the man became the first Director of Fire Service in the State. That’s the late Ezekwo, a native of Nise in Awka South Local Government Area of the state. Meanwhile, I became a friend to the son. We attended the same secondary School in Awka. As soon as I finished secondary School, there was an opportunity of employment into fire service in the state. The man asked if I’m interested in Fire Service. I said yes. That was how I joined fire service in 1997. Even as a Director, the man was still fighting fire in the state. He was a very free minded but strong man. I doubt if any of his successors did up to what he did. I learnt a lot from him because he really trained me and watched me grow to a certain level. 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. So the passion for the job started in the 80s when I didn’t even know I’ll join fire service.
How was the Fire Service before you came on board and how is it now?
Fire service of then and now are not the same. There’s been a lot of innovations. Before now, people don’t know much about Fire Service in the state. One of the things we were able to do is to increase our public awareness campaign. We believe the first thing to do apart from fighting fire is preventing the fire from occuring. And the only way we can achieve this is through fire safety sensitization. That we have been able to achieve 80 percent. People have known about fire service. We’ve been able to visit churches, markets, companies to educate and sensitize them about what fire safety management and prevention is all about, because that’s the primary thing fire service stands for.
Aside that, we’ve increased in terms of manpower. His Excellency, Governor Willie Obiano has done a lot for the agency through the plea of heads of fire Service. For the first time in the history of the agency in the country, the hazardous allowance for fire fighters which has always been N10 every month was upgraded. That was in 2019. The governor, after seeing the need for an upward review, decided to change the narrative and increased the amount to N20.000 which is the highest you can get anywhere around the country. Of course, this is in addition to the monthly salary of fire fighters in the state. Some other states still pay N10, some N5 which is very funny.
Moreover, recently, the governor gave approval for the employment of 120 fire fighters into the organization after we cried out to him for lack of personnel. For the first time in the history of the state, such bulk number of officers were engaged at the same time. Before then, it’s been long recruitment was done in the agency. Again, the governor went ahead to assist us in the procurement of fire equipment, because most of the fire trucks we were using were not only outdated, but aged, some 15years, some 20 years. He also approved the repairs of some of them still good for use. If you visit the major markets in the state, you’ll notice construction of overhead tanks in the markets. He also installed what we call fire hydrants in those markets. We went ahead to train some security men and leaders in the market in first aid fire fighting before the arrival of fire fighters. You can only do this with the aid of fire hydrants and hose which have been installed.
After the Onitsha fire incident, we now have fire station units within some of the major markets. We have at Onitsha main market, Ochanja, Ogidi. We’re looking forward for more. The governor has also assisted us in building more fire stations. Presently, we have one in Aguleri, one at the new international airport. Another thing in the pipeline is how we can inculcate into the school curriculum fire safety. 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. We’ve been trying to meet up with the international standard. Currently, Anambra state remains No. 1 in fire fighting in the entire South East. When you join South South, our position won’t exceed No. 3.
Undoubtedly, these feats couldn’t have been achieved without some challenges?
Yes, amidst all these achievements, we’ve been challenged with funding. Though this is not peculiar to Anambra alone. Truth is that government has not been able to fund fire service the way it ought to. Why Anambra ranks first is that we’ve been able to maximize the little support we’ve received from the government. Funding determines lot of things. For example, it’s lack of funding that causes breakdown of our trucks. And when they breakdown, repairing them takes time due to the bureaucratic bottlenecks in the system. Running day to day activities of the office requires funding. Before now, we may delay in responding to fire incident due to lack of diesel. That has, however been taken care of as we are presently allowed to visit certain designated filling stations to refill our truck tanks. But we still need funding for more trucks.
We’re still facing the challenge of manpower. The work of fire service is a very tedious task which requires enough manpower. Every fire truck needs at least six fire men to move on with. But you’ll see two or three officers manning the truck. Even with the 120 newly recruited personnel, we’re still challenged with manpower because more fire stations are being created. Meanwhile, some officers who are due for retirement are exiting. Presently, our number is not up to 200, including the 120. We are considering engaging young people as volunteers. But we’re still working on the modalities, including incentives because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage people in volunteering work free of charge 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, but 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?
We’re well aware of such complaints. Fire fighters are generally accused of late arrival, even in developed countries. 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 emphasize on 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 noticed the fire, they would be running helter scelter trying to quench the fire. They only remember to alert us when the fire gets out of hand. We’re not spirits. We’re only aware when we’re informed. Fire fighters fight fire better in their enemies camp, that’s if they have enemies at all. That’s the rule. What you owe us is call.
Another ugly experience we encounter ocasioned by the late arrival accusations is the periodic attacks of our officers and destruction of our equipment. One wonders what those who engage in this nefarious acts tend to achieve. If they end up destroying our trucks, what then are we going to fight the fire with? 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, but for me, I don’t believe in that because fire fighting is a humanitarian service. They’re supposed to be walking 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 loses. They don’t look at the negative side of things, wether they will be hurt or not. What is primary in their minds is to assist the public in saving lives and property.
Once I hear any emergency call, I don’t feel relaxed because I know people’s lives and property are in danger. I’ll be forced to go for their rescue, whether dead or alive. Throwing stones at me doesn’t change anything. I’ve had lot of wounds in the cause of fighting fire in this state. But that can’t stop me from doing what I’m called to do because I’m a humanitarian.
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 quiting 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. Of course his Excellency never did something like that. People were calling me within and outside the country. The pressure was so much on me. But when I remembered that the governor and the people of the state didn’t do anything to me, and lot of people who still believe in me, I can’t afford to disappoint them.
But the truth is that if I had my way, I would have left the state. On the second thought, reflecting on what I’ve achieved and where I’m heading to, I said no. Meanwhile, within that time, many organizations were calling me to work for them especially when they heard that I’ve been sacked. I think I received about 5 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. If not God and humanity, maybe I would have left.
Any advice to your officers and men?
To my workers and fellow fire fighters, I wish to share my experiences with them as a way to motivate them. I’ve passed through lots of huddles in the cause of fighting fire. I’ve endured a lot. I’ve sustained injuries in the line of duty. I remembered one of the days I sustained burn injury. I also remembered the day I entered a pit toilet to rescue a baby, precisely July 3, 2000. Although the baby died, but it was one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken in Fire Service. I thought I would never make it. But by the grace of God, I came out alive. It was a successful operation.
Despite all these, I had to endure. Endurance is a watch word in Fire Service. As a fire fighter you have to endure lot 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. Even when people pelt stones at you while attending to fire victims, it should not discourage you. As a humanitarian, don’t relent because you’re serving humanity, and by extension, God who will surely uplift you. You also have to develop yourself. Human development is very important. You don’t have to wait for government to do it for you. I came into the service with SSCE. But 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.