Mr. Japhet PC Okereafor is the Director of Imo State Fire Service, a job he does with so much passion and commitment.
In this interview with Nigerian Newsguide, the veteran fire fighter and product of National Fire Academy, Abuja said the fire stations in the state needs to be upgraded.
He gave insights into what led to the recent advancement and improvement in Imo Fire Service operations and his major challenges as he appealed to the state government and public spirited-individuals to come to their rescue.
Could you please introduce yourself, your designation and what you do here?
I’m Japhet PC Okereafor, the Director, Imo State Fire Service, am in charge of the entire Imo State Fire Service.
Can we know some of these fire stations in Imo State?
We have a station in Orlu, that is Orlu Fire Service Station, we have one at Okigwe at Okpara road, Okigwe Fire Service Station, one at Government House, we call it Owerri Municipal Fire Service Station, we have the headquarters here at Okigwe Road, Owerri. We have other stations in Mbaise, Mbano, Ideato. All these ones are functioning but on a skeletal base. We equally have some other stations in Owerri Relief Market and the Alaba Int’l Cluster Market, Naze. These are the places we have fire stations.
Sometime now, the news was everywhere that the Fire Service in Imo State improved to a very reasonable extent, what actually happened, how did it happen?
My mother, when she was alive, she always told me that a child giving a specific work to do without equipment, cannot do that work, but a child giving a specific job to do with equipment can do the job. So the past administration tried to release some equipment and resources required to do the job of a fire service and those equipment they released that time are still in use till this time, that is the improvement you see in Imo Fire Service today.
What spectacular thing did the government do that time?
Formerly when I worked as the Deputy Commandant General, Imo State here had only one fire engine which was not very effective in movement, but when I took over from the administration of Cyril Ugwuegbulem, Rochas Okorocha was the Governor then, I wrote a lot of letters informing him about the standard of the fire service that was very below standard. At that time we needed some kind of improvements. So why we were all doing this, fortunately, Emeka Ihedioha came in as governor, seeing the letters I wrote, he called on my attention, which I went and defended most of those things. Really, he released some funds for some of those dilapidated vehicles or unserviceable vehicles we needed to fix and they are now serviceable.
Like those days we never had even a bottle of foam compound, we later got some, some of them have finished anyway and we still need more to do our work efficiently.
A lot of places that witnessed fire incidents in the past one year were swiftly handled and people did not die to our own knowledge, do you have well trained personnel, because sometimes, you see casualty on the side of the fire fighters or on the side of those trapped in a particular building in a particular circumstance.
What magic did you employ to do those things?
God knows the way he does his things, when I entered this fire service, I entered with class five but I was forced to attend National Fire Academy and if you attend National Fire Academy, that means you are in the University of Fire Service. We got trained in professional fire fighting, digital fire fighting.
Fire of those days we fought with crude equipment is not the same fire of these days. You must approach fire to know the base of the fire. If you are able to know the base and the fire content of every fire, you will be successful enough and you have equipment, so when I came in, I was forced to elevate the standard of my personnel because I have seen officers who are now by my side to equally help me, so I was equally lifting them to know exactly what they are doing and shared the work the way it is supposed to be. That was one of the magic I did anyway. And every two days I always conduct fire drill for them. Somebody you are conducting fire drill for, that means you are practicing every day, that person will be happy to hear that something has happened and will be ready to apply the practical knowledge he has learnt. So in a nutshell, we were able to quench those fires in Imo particularly, Owerri the state capital because we work as a team and we have the technical know-how, only that we need more assistance from government, individuals and corporate bodies.
Some companies and corporate bodies are supposed to show support and encouragement to Fire Service by way of living to their Corporate Social Responsibilities, are they doing that in Imo State?
Let me first of all give kudos to Ebere Links and Empire Energy, Mr. Benneth Okorie is the man that owns Empire Energy and Sir Chidiebere Okoroafor owns Ebere Links. These are two persons I doff my cap for. Whenever I have problem and beckon on them, they do answer me very well.
Like the last time, there was a very serious fire outbreak at Alaba Intl Market, Naze, immediately they called me and the nearest fire station is Empire Energy, I called Empire CEO immediately, they turned out quickly before my men met them there, that was the first magic, because they were already very close to that place, opposite them, I had to turn them out immediately, then send my men to do the professional touch in the fire. We were not supposed to meet the fire as per say, because of lack of diesel, but I ran to Ebere Links and he gave me about 50 litres of diesel that took us to that place.
I appreciate him very well, and this Benneth Okorie, at times, I will call him, when I don’t have diesel, he will say come and take, in most cases, these are the people that show concern in fire service, we are appealing to other individuals and corporate organizations to equally assist us, if they assist us like these two people, we will do better.
What about government allocation, assistance and their statutory work they are supposed to be doing by way of funding and what have you, subvention, are they doing that?
The Imo state government is doing their best. I know they have a lot of commitment. Let me be plain, the fire service needs to be elevated. We need some assistance. We need a lot of things to be done in order to get fire service to the standard it should be. All the things we are doing now is to make sure that the job does not die in our hands, because if something is given to you to take care of and you allow that thing to die, it then means you don’t know what you are doing.
I don’t have much to say, but I still thank His Excellency Governor Hope Uzodimma for his efforts so far towards our direction but must not fail to appeal to his government to come to our aid. We need a lot of assistance. There are some of our fire engines that were serviced last time by the past administration, some of them need retouching, they now need servicing, something that you have serviced for the past two years, and nothing has been done on it, one day it may likely breakdown, so we need assistance, financial support from government and well-to-do Nigerians and Imolites just like these two persons I told you, Ebere Links and Empire Energy CEOs.
Fire is our best friend, we make use of fire everyday, every minute, so nobody knows when it will be an enemy, our best friend under a second, can be our worst enemy, it can destroy things we have gotten throughout our lifetime, one minute is enough for fire to destroy it all, it then becomes your worst enemy, so that is why we plead to good spirited individuals. Let them come together, when am crying they should know that this is serious, and it is for their own good.
On the part of individuals, the people, Imolites, citizens and residents of this place, they are carefree about the way they live their life – domestic activities and what have you? What do you think they can do to face the reality now that anything can happen within a second to turn your best friend – fire, to your enemy?
It is a very bad way of doing things, the last time I went to Darling FM, I introduced a lot of ideas to most of the Imolites. I made them understand how important it is to turn off electrical gadgets after work for those working in offices. Then you must turn off all electrical appliances in your house before leaving for work. Because if you don’t do, there is usually a residue current in a switch, when there is emergency power supply from power holdings, the residue current will increase the current that comes into that place and it may result to something else. We advise, when you want to go out, switch off these points, take appropriate measures that fire calls for. Then it becomes your best friend but if you make any mistake, it becomes your worst enemy. We must always take some precautionary measures.
What about gas stations and filling stations?
Gas stations is one of the worst. Some people buy gas cylinder and keep it inside their house instead of outside, and if there is any leakage, the first thing that will blow is the gas cylinder, you equally forget to know that the gas cylinder is equivalent to Improvised Electronic Devices or Bomb, because, if there is fire inside it, you will not know, you will only see it developing, the gas does not burn because it is flowing, when there is exit air, already there is intake, because of that, that fire may likely go inside that thing and become disastrous. It can blow, one filling station alone can burn the whole of Owerri within two days. So we always need to take precautionary measures. Always try to perceive the odour of gas when you want to switch on your gas cylinder, vent the whole room before you now strike your matches. Try to perceive the odour of your kitchen to see if that your gas is leaking and always have your matches in your hand before opening the valve. Because if you open the valve to go and look for matches, by the time you light it, the whole place will burn.
So we should learn to take precautionary measures. Gas stations must also ensure that their fire fighting equipment are effective and functional and must observe all protocols needed in running a gas station. Again untrained staffers should not be engaged at all in fire stations, because they are the ones that cause most of these fire incidents because of their inexperience.
What about private vehicles, does it mean that fire extinguishers are not in large supply, people don’t buy them as prescribed by Road Safety?
It’s not that extinguisher is not in large supply, our people intentionally decided not to have it and they think they are doing it for anybody. If you have your extinguisher in the vehicle, if there is any spark anywhere, you run to your extinguisher and extinguish that spark immediately and it is even cheaper, easier and faster than when your entire vehicle is burnt to ashes.
When there is fire incident, what do you advise people around to do?
Immediately there is fire incident, the first thing you should take note of is the situation of the fire incident, in our office here, we call it sizing up. Try to evacuate all flammables that are within the surrounding, so that when you are fighting, you fight that burning material alone. You try to distant that burning material from unburnt ones. Let’s say, one room is burning and the only way to suppress that fire is to pour sufficient water on the roof in order to stop it from entering the other one because that excess water you are pouring will now become a coolant to the burning material, it will not easily transfer, but if the temperature of the burning material continues to increase, it will evolve everywhere.
So, when we evacuate non-burning material from a burning material, you have created what we call starvation. You have starved that burning material and when you want to fight fire, always don’t fight flame, fight the base of the fire, look for the base of the fire. You want to use your extinguishers, don’t go to flame, go to the base of the fire to extinguish the fire. Flame is not fire, extinguish the base, the flame will quench.
Some people usually find it difficult to call you people whenever there is fire incident, do you organize awareness programmes to inform the public about your services and contacts?
Yes we have been doing it, even the last time I had a seminar with Petroleum Marketers Association, I lectured them on moves, initial attendance to fire at its foundation stage, so I know we have a lot of way of sensitizing our people on the issue of fire and fire disaster handling more especially during the dry season. We always organize a seminar for them, like as you are here now, you are here to create awareness too. Fire service has its number, the first emergency number for fire service is 112, if you can’t remember 112, you remember 081, 34, 75, 77, 60 you ‘ve gotten the fire service with these numbers during emergencies.
What about personnel, do you have handicap in that area, do you need more personnel ?
I need up to 200 personnel. In fire service now, the total number of fire personnel I have here is 54 and we run three shifts in Imo State – morning, afternoon and night. You know how many people that demand to be on each duty at a particular time, so, we need about 200 more personnel for us to function efficiently.
In what areas do you need these personnel, fire-fighting alone, what about administrative staff?
We don’t employ people for administration, every administrative staff of the fire service are professional fire fighters, you must be trained first on fire-fighting. We don’t recruit administrators, we recruit fire men, even a woman recruited into the fire service is regarded as a fire man. In your appointment letter, they will equally write it fire man. then it is on the course of our training that some will go into administration while others, operational.
These are the two duties of fire service, administration and operation. Few people remain with administration and more people posted to operations.
The government, what are they saying about the employment?
I cannot say for sure, but I know the governor has a listening ear, he will attend to my demands, because I know the last time he asked me to articulate all the problems the fire service has and send to him, that I have done long time ago.
Assuming you are asked to recruit, what qualifications do you look out for?
If we want to recruit you as a graduate, you must do electrical engineering, then you will later enroll into the fire service course. It’s just like as we have NDA, Naval Base Academy etc., that is the same way we have National Fire Academy. If you attend NFA, you don’t need any other university qualification, like myself I attended NFA, Abuja and that is the certificate am using to any level, anywhere I am called, it covers my BSc. Its equivalent is BSc or HND.
What about better working condition for your workers and yourself, I know their salary structure is poor considering the hazard they are facing in the course of discharging their duties?
That is the Nigerian system of government. The problem that civil servants face in Nigeria, the military at times face it, let alone paramilitary. The working condition, one day will improve when we have somebody that is has link with fire service, I mean somebody that is closer to the fire service, if he comes into power, he will improve the fire service and its personnel.