…says, I’m still a fire fighter, even as a fire chief
Engr. Dr. Martin Agbili is the Director, Anambra State Fire Service. In this interview with AWESOME EKENE, the Fire Chief lists his achievements as number one man in Fire Service in the State, what stands him out from his contemporaries, his regrets and other sundry issues.
You recently bagged an award of Fire fighter of the year 2022 in Nigeria. How did you come about it?
It was exactly at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel where lots of people were given awards – leadership excellence award for different categories. Mine was fire fighter of the year. My name was shortlisted about 3months ago among those norminated to contest. We were four in number, a lady and four men – all senior fire fighters in Nigeria. After the contest, I emerged the first position and on Saturday I was invited to Abuja for the ceremony. The award is very peculiar because it was highly contested by Fire Officers in Nigeria and I was massively voted to become the winner representing Anambra State. As the winner, I got 228,830 votes to defeat 2nd person who got 214,805 votes. The 3rd person got 148,638 votes while the 4th person got 70,355 votes. Total votes cast for this category of award was 662,628 votes.
What was criteria for the selection?
For the best of my knowledge, what must have distinguished me from the rest included my title as the only fire Chief that’s still fighting fire in the whole world. When you attain this hieght of leadership, it’s expected you don’t go to fire scenes again, but I always tell them that being a fire Chief doesn’t mean anything. You were once a fire fighter before becoming a fire Chief. I still see and call myself a fire fighter till date because I still go to the fire scenes, not just to visit, but to fight fire direct. I think they were looking for those who have done certain unimaginable things as far as fighting fire is concerned. People doing well in areas of fire fighting operations. I think people within and outside the country voted me not just for fighting fire, but for fire safety management which I carry out not just for Anambra, I go beyond the state to teach and counsel people about fire fighting operations and management
How many awards have you won and what would the award spur you to doing?
People keep asking me why this award keep coming almost every now and then. As at November 5, I’ve received a total of 55 notable awards from different organizations. Yet more are still on the way. Before the year runs out, more have been tabled down which I have their normination letters. About two years ago, I was rejecting awards, but at this point, I no longer reject awards, I was advised not to reject awards since they’re not asking me to pay, but I’m being given because I merited them. It’s a sign of recognition that someone is doing well and if people will recognize me openly through the award. The award will spur me to doing more and better in the areas I’ve been trying my best, especially in humanitarian and selfless services to the state and nation. To whom much is given, they say, much is expected. Meanwhile, I dedicated the award to all Firefighters in Nigeria and all over the world.
Fire Service has always been accused of late arrival to scenes of fire. Is there no remedy to this dent on the image of the agency?
To be honest with you, we’re trying our best, especially in the area of response time to emergency. The truth is that, sometimes, it’s neither the cause of the victims nor fire service. The problem lies majorly with the general public, in the sense that they don’t call us on time. Those who call, the same public will twart the response time of the fire fighters. Even those who call, before they call, they must have tried their best, and when the fire becomes overwhelming, they start calling us. Most of them don’t even have the emergency number of fire service. Sometimes, it’s the passer-by who will provide them with the emergency numbers. Another challenge is the traffic, depending on the distance of the fire scene and the fire station. If the distance is far, it’s almost impossible for the fire fighters to get to the scene on time. You’ll agree with me that it’s on rare occasions that we don’t arrive in time. For example, that of ogba ogwu market, we received the call around 12.30pm, we can’t disappear and appear at the scene at the same 12.30. We must travel from where our nearest office is located to the scene. In this case, the fault is not of the victim, but the distance. It becomes worse when you meet a traffic jam and the motoring public are not willing to give way for our trucks to pass. Even with the blasting of the siren, they’re still not perturbed. Take for example, the Onitsha traffic, you can imagine the truck trying to navigate. But yesterday’s experience was an eye opener. We had to drive against traffic at some point, because that was the only option. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been able to meet up with the emergency situation.
Let’s assume you’re the Controller General, are there strategies you can deploy to tackle this challenge?
In Lagos and in developed countries, there are service lanes for emergency vehicles, no other vehicles are expected to ply that route. If there are traffic, the emergency vehicles simply take that way to deliver on their mandate. Assuming I have my way, I’ll dualize the roads to create the service lane for emergency vehicles. That will solve the problem.
What really caused the recent fire incident at popular Ogbogwu market in Onitsha and is there any solution to prevent recurrence?
There was an explosion which led to building collapse and fire outbreak. When we received the distress call, we quickly deployed our men at the closest stations, which is Okpoko to the scene before others started coming. The cause of fire was an explosion which emanated from a chemical stored in the market. You know there are inflammable materials you don’t just store anyhow. There are designated places they’re meant to be stored. Besides, there must be enough ventilation in the place. Otherwise, it will heat up to a point it will expand and lead to explosion. The same goes for petrol. That was was happened. But before fire started burning, there was a vibration that caused the collapse of the building. There were about 80shops affected in the incident. It was however a section of the market, where chemical equipment, including acid are stored. Some of these materials don’t like water. But we were able to manage the situation with our chemical foam compound. Some persons were trapped in the debris. It’s after excavation that we’ll know the actual number of casualties. They were complaining about a woman who’s whereabouts is yet unknown. To prevent a reoccurrance, such inflammable materials are not meant to be in such confined space where there are no much ventilation and air. Those items are supposed to be stored in warehouses where they can conveniently take their customers to. They can have their offices in the market.
What distinguishes you from your peers as far as fire fighting is concerned?
To the best of my knowledge, I may not be right, I’m the most recognized and decorated Fire Chief in the country, which informed the numerous awards I’ve bagged, locally, nationally and internationally. I don’t think any Fire Chief has gotten to that level. Again, I’m the first and only Nigerian member of International Association of Fire Chiefs. Academically, I stand out, because majority of Fire Chiefs have not attained that hieght. In terms of certification, I have a lot of them that stand me out. Finally, I’m still and the only Fire Chief in the whole world that go to fire scenes to fight fire. No other Fire Chief does that. Fire Chiefs can visit fire scenes, inspect the situation, maybe grant interview and go. But I go right inside the fire, join other fire men and fight the fire to standstill.
What makes you take that extra mile?
The secret is that I started from the scratch. I remember I joined the service with SSCE, but whatever I’ve acquired today has been inside the service. So it has become part of me. And because I’ve been doing it for years before I became the Fire Chief, it’s still part of me. Besides, my leadership style is leading by example. I believe strongly that when the upcoming ones looking up to you see you work passionately, they don’t have option than to key in. They’re always encouraged and motivated when they watch the way I fight fire.
Would you want any of your kids to join the service?
Presently, there’s none of my children who don’t know about fire fighting. Infact, one of my sons is already showing interest. He’s always telling me he wants to be a fire fighter because they watch me on TV, social media because about 80 percent of my discussions are safety, fire and emergency and they like it. If I have my way to put him in the service, I’ll surely do that because I’m going to train him to become a better fire fighter than me. My wife is part of what I am today, because she supports me fully. All these while my kids are clamouring to take after me, she has never said no.
Any regrets in fighting fire so far?
Hmmmm, my regret is that I’ve not really gotten to where I want to be in Fire Service. I want to become a renowned, internationally recognized Fire professional and I’ve not gotten there. Even though I’m working hard to hit that target, but it has not been that easy. It’s a certification one should get, but there are hinderances here and there.