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NIGERIA: Neglect of Fire Fighters and Safety Challenges at Airports

Fire fighters play crucial role in rescue operations and whenever they fail, it results in fatalities. Chinedu Eze reviews the operations of fire fighters at the nation’s airports.
 
Firefighting is a very important aspect of aviation. Its provision and efficiency determine the grading of airports. There have been many aircraft accidents that became tragic because fire fighters were not on hand to put off the fire.
 
One example in Nigeria is the Sosoliso Flight 1145 that crashed at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa on December 10, 2005, which killed over 100 people.
 
When the aircraft crashed and burst into flames it was difficult for fire fighters to get to the location of the burning aircraft. But when they managed to get there, the firefighters did not have water to put out the fire. That was what made that crash most tragic. The pain and sorrow caused by the crash was exacerbated by the fact that 60 per cent of those on board who died were children.
 
Since that tragic accident there has been improvement in the provision of fire equipment and the training of personnel. But not all the airports have full fire cover in accordance to the regulation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
 
Last Sunday the Aerodrome Rescue and Fire Fighting Service (ARFFS) of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAA) celebrated the International Fire Fighting Day in Lagos. Participants reviewed the ability of firefighters to effectively carry out rescue operation and emphasised the need for adequate training of personnel.
 
A Job of Sacrifice
The general manager in charge of the ARFFS in FAAN, Peter Onyeri remarked that firefighting is a job of sacrifice where a fire fighter can easily lose his life at it happened three years ago when a fire fighter, Mr. Zubeiru Mohammed was burnt to death when he and his colleagues wanted to put of a bush fire near the runway of the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano.
 
Onyeri in his speech at the event said firefighters exist primarily to intervene in cases of aircraft in distress with a view to rescue trapped persons while also battling in above 1000 degree centigrade temperature to reduce the level of damage due to the fire.
 
“ICAO under our rules of engagement requires that we do just that (rescue operation) and nothing more and rapidity with which aircraft emergencies slide into major disasters involving mass casualties. In Nigeria, while this is recognised, the ARFFS is also expected to intervene in concomitant events and call up the morale factor to intervene in other (fire) emergencies at airports,” Onyeri said.
 
But it was not only the Sosoliso crash that exposed the unpreparedness of fire fighters at the airports before now. On May 10, 2000, fire erupted at the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and burnt the facility down. Fire fighters could not safe it.
 
Although there have been a lot of improvement in the provision of fire cover at the airports but an inside source said there are still some gaps; that some airports are yet to have the recommended number of fire tenders. Although between 2011 and 2013 a lot of fire tenders and equipment were supplied.
 
FAAN Technical Adviser, John Ezenwankwo who was in charge of the burnt airport then said that the material that was used to build the terminal was susceptible to fire, advising that before building a terminal or any other facility at the airport, fire fighters must know the material being used to build the facility.
 
“If you are putting up a structure, firefighters should know the material used in building the airport terminal.”
 
In the provision of firefighting equipment, Ezenwankwo said although ICAO has its minimum recommendation of fire fighting vehicles that should be provided in an airport, there is no maximum number and therefore advised that Nigeria should have its own minimum in the sense that if ICAO stipulated four firefighting vehicles, Nigeria could double that as its minimum. This he said would enable the airports to tackle any kind emergency.
 
“WE must establish our own minimum. ICAO has minimum recommendation but there is no limit to maximum. Nigerian should establish its minimum. We should spend our money on areas that matter. We should establish minimum in terms of equipment and personnel,” Ezenwankwo said.
 
Training and Personnel
Ezenwankwo said that Nigeria should establish training facility for firefighters and stop going to Cameroon for training, describing it as an embarrassment to Nigeria. He said that Nigeria should establish a rig and simulator and that each of the fire tenders must have at least five firefighters on duty at every shift.
 
“We should show the rest of Africa that we are the leaders,” he said.
Industry consultant and the CEO of Belujane Konsult who delivered the key paper at the meeting said the aerodrome operator should ensure that all personnel assigned to aircraft firefighting duties are trained in accordance with appropriate aircraft firefighting. They should be provided with equipment and clothing.
 
He said no aerodrome operator shall permit a person to act and no person should act as an aircraft firefighters at an aerodrome, unless the person has within the previous 12 months, successfully completed the training specified in the this section.
 
Personnel Readiness
Aligbe said response test, which indicates how ready a fire fighter is, is to be carried out by the airport operator every 12 months and for response test to be successful it must meet certain conditions, which include three minutes positioning at the scene of emergency from alarm time of the specified number of fire-fighting vehicles required.
 
“The fire-fighting vehicles positioned must be in sufficient number in order to apply the principal extinguishing agent at 50 per cent of the total capacity required on commencement.
 
As stated above, airports are categorised in accordance to the firefighting vehicles and other fire equipment at such airports.
 
“For the purposes of rescue and fire-fighting, airports are categorised on a global ranking scale. The categories range from 1 to 10 and these are based on overall length and maximum fuselage width of the aircraft types that operate into and from such airports. 
 
Nigeria’s airports are categorised thus: Category 9: the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano; Category 8: the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa; Category 6: Margret Ekpo International  Calabar and Benin Airport.
 
He said Nigeria is yet to have Catgeor10 airport because categories determine the minimum requirements; equipment and manning personnel for effective firefighting and none of Nigeria’s airports has met the recommendation for category 10.
He said the challenge which fire fighters face in Nigeria include inadequate personnel; inadequate equipment, inadequate rescue centre, indecent working environment and inadequate training.
 
Aligbe also said, “Over 90 per cent of FAAN staff and over 98 per cent of all airport/aviation staff are ignorant of the fact that ARFFS has no iota of obligation to intervene today if there is a fire in say, FAAN offices and airlines. ICAO and NCAA are very clear in their mandate; ARFFS is established solely for aircraft fire-fighting no more, no less. The personnel of ARFFS are professionally incompetent to handle domestic fires; they neither have the training nor the equipment.”
 
Aligbe added a caveat that there is moral obligation that firefighters cannot stand by and watch airport building engulfed in fire, so if such incident happens they would go all out to fight the fire.
 
Improved Situation
In the last three years attention has been paid to firefighting through recruitment of personnel, provision of equipment of fire fighting vehicles. In fact, the World Bank supported Nigeria in the procurement of fire tenders and building of perimeter fencing. Firefighting and security were deemed critical by the world body.
 
About five years ago fire fighters had warned that they could not guarantee the ability of the department to successfully carry out rescue operation at any of the nation’s airports due to poor equipment and personnel and called on government to take urgent action and avert imminent danger by putting an end to this nagging problem.
 
Hearkening to the clamour of the officials of the fire department, FAAN procured 20 fire tenders with the support of the World and carried out massive recruitment. This has given a boost to the department, but this is not enough because some airports do not have adequate fire cover.
 
Industry experts have called on FAAN to reactivate fire hydrants, where water is stored for the fire tenders and this should be made operational for 24 hours.
 
About three years ago the officials of ARFSS complained that the department was a dumping ground for unfit people recruited through the recommendation of top politicians in the National Assembly and highly placed public servants. The officials said the department needed young, strong energetic personnel who could take up the strenuous job of fighting fire. Recently indications show that there is a turnaround in that department.
 
Speaking on the improvement of the sector, Onyeri said, “Reports from audits conducted into the ARFFS in the last one year showed a remarkable improvement in our level of compliance with regulatory requirements. There is no doubt that a lot still needs to be done but statistics show that we are on upward swing, while also reporting that we did not suffer any fatalities or injuries in the course of doing our job, during the period.”

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