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Avoiding the rivers of fire

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Two days ago (Tuesday) there was a media report that no fewer than 10 persons were killed following an inferno at Bonny/Bille/Nembe jetty in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The fire at the jetty took place in the morning as traders were unloading goods from the boats. However, the saddest part of the story was the violent reaction of a mob on sighting the Fire Service when they responded to contain the escalating fire.

This unfortunate incident brings to the fore the menace that faces us today as a society: Market fires. A fortnight ago, it was a market in Abuja. It is always in the news, no part of the country is spared. Hardly a month passes by without reported cases of fire incidents, especially in public places such as plazas, markets, timber sheds, production lines, among others. This is why, as we are now about to enter the dry season, we must do everything possible to avoid these rivers of fire from consuming the precious lives of the struggling citizens.

Apart from the lives that are being lost, the economic cost is also enormous. According to the official statistics from the Federal Fire Service, over N5 trillion was lost to inferno between 2013 and 2018.

Yet again, few have taken the time to link these unfortunate disasters to the actual damage done to the country’s economy. It is a huge hole these rampant market fire outbreaks have blown into the economy because they are not just ordinary accidents.

They are fiscal drain pipes and humanitarian bugaboos. To put it in perspective, we could look at how real fire-fighting activities are carried out in a developed country like the USA. According to America’s National Fire Protection Association, a fire department responds to a fire every 23 seconds throughout the US. Fire departments responded to 33,602,500 calls for service in 2015: 21,500,000 were for medical help, 2,533,500 were false alarms, and 1,345,500 were for actual fires.

Over here, statistics from the Federal Fire Service indicate that between 2020 and 2021, a total of 4,541 calls were made to the agency nationwide and 378 rescue emergencies were recorded.

Now let us look at the impact of market fires on the labour market, for instance. The last time it gave an update at the beginning of the year, the National Bureau of Statistics placed the country’s unemployment rate at 33.3%.

This represents the number of people looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force. This level of unemployment has caused many to resort to all forms of trading which appear to be the only “job” without a gateway.

Most trading activities take place in the markets and goods sold range from petty perishable items to heavy-duty gadgets. This represents the sole means of livelihood for many of the traders. Hence, this means of livelihood is threatened by the incidents of fire disasters.

The unrelenting spate of fire mishaps in markets within the country has stripped many traders of their jobs and means of livelihood, adding to the number of people stranded in the labour market. Then again, it has both physical and psychological impacts on start-ups. Indeed, market fires are bloodsuckers on the life of the nation.

Nigeria’s economy, therefore, is bleeding profusely from the damaging impact of these fire incidents, which have, over the years, brought immense hardship on the citizenry, leaving an already struggling economy on its knees.

Although we lack a robust fire disaster database as is applicable in organised crime, we do not need an expert to tell us that this situation portends huge financial damage and worsens the nation’s poverty indices.

Meanwhile, experts are in agreement that it has a huge impact on inflation figures of the nation because it creates a chain reaction along the demand and supply chain, in addition to other consequences such as an increase in the crime rate. When markets are engulfed in fire, it creates ripple effects on the distribution line, affecting the availability of items sold and reducing supply which triggers inflation.

We should also not overlook the environmental impact, which is quite enormous. The greenhouse gases that are emitted while the fire is ongoing are enormous.

As a matter of fact, an inventory needed to be taken towards ascertaining the level of carbon emissions, the same way it is done in the agricultural sector (bush burning). Moreover, some of the market fires are even environmentally disastrous because some of the goods stored are hazardous substances that emit highly toxic gases like nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.

Certainly, the job of firefighting must not be left to the Federal Fire Service alone and the masses must not be hostile to firefighters.

It is instructive to note that firefighting in Nigeria is not a duty for the Federal Government alone; it is on the concurrent list, meaning that it is a responsibility shared by the federal and state governments, just like education. But the reality is that every citizen has his eye on the federal agency in charge of firefighting. Nobody looks towards the states and local government authorities. This is not supposed to be so.

It is high time the state governments came alive to their responsibility. The governors take home a monthly “security vote” without raising a finger to secure the local markets and public places from fire disasters. Yet, when such emergencies occur, people gather around and start insulting the Federal Fire Service. We should hold our governors to account. When there is a fire outbreak in a village market, the people should call on the governor to bring in his firefighting troops. Their so-called security votes are not pocket money.

In addition, the state legislators should create annual budget heads for firefighting at the grassroots level. It will create employment, and help develop the country’s environmental sector.

But most importantly, on the part of the markets and the Nigerian citizens who are at the tough end of the national calamity, there are a few self-help measures we must adopt. The first one is taking fire outbreaks as an opportunity to create jobs at the local level. The point I am trying to make here is that every problem could be seen as an opportunity for job creation and value addition to the evolution of society. The markets could hire their own teams of firefighters as first responders, just the same way they hire security teams and private guards.

Secondly, the market unions must look towards fire insurance. This is a culture that is not part of our life in this clime, but the recurring fire incidents call for the review of this status quo. There are several packages of insurance that could be tried in order to help the people in the commercial enclaves have a fall-back plan when a fire disaster strikes. Those who commit suicide and those who find themselves back at square one can now have hope for living and also be able to pick up the pieces of their life. Insurance culture is even more necessary now that our society is becoming more individualistic as opposed to when community help was easily available to people who are faced with personal injury or misfortune.

Thirdly, there is an opportunity to turn towards renewable energy and use the opportunity to fight climate change. This is because most of the fire incidents are caused by storing fuel in shops or using fuel in the vicinity of the market. The shops and markets can install solar panels for individual shops or on an independent power production basis. There are opportunities in this when the government gives appropriate support and also bans the use or storage of inflammable fuel in market environments.

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