By Martin K. N. Kollie
For more than one and the half century, Liberians from different backgrounds and beliefs have been severely victimized by almost every form of human and natural disaster ranging from flooding to fire outbreak. There has been series of tragic scenes and alarming occurrences of fire disaster affecting citizens and foreign nationals. As a result of an ineffective national fire prevention and response mechanism, incidents of fire outbreak continue to pose serious threat to the safety and survival of many residents in Liberia.
The livelihood of taxpaying citizens is endangered every other day by this tragedy (fire) as the Liberia National Fire Service crawls on its knees to help respond to the increasing wave of fire predicaments, particularly in Montserrado County. The repeated occurrence of fire outbreaks in recent time is really disturbing for a nation that is still striving to defeat poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment. This disaster has made and continues to make many of our citizens hopeless, homeless, and jobless. In fact, some families have got nothing to live for as a result of this catastrophe.
Of late, we have been witnessing severe casualties of fire outbreak in communities, schools, churches, mosques, business places, public buildings, etc. The terrifying sound of the siren from the water tanker has been so frequent in past weeks. The Liberia National Fire Service has been incapable of responding to these outbreaks due to inadequate budgetary support, training, and logistics. As a result of this existing inadequacy, our nation has suffered huge loss. Hundreds of Liberians including non-Liberians have fallen prey to fire destruction since 2006 up to present, while properties costing millions of dollars have been badly damaged.
The constitutional mandate of the Liberia National Fire Service has been undermined by the deliberate refusal of major State actors to increase the capacity or performance of LNFS through budgetary increment. We got no reason to shift unwarranted blame on ill-equipped and untrained firefighters who are trying their best to safeguard life and property. It is our duty now as societal watchdogs to even congratulate them for assisting us to prevent and respond to fire outbreaks especially in terrible zones around Monrovia. They (firefighters) are willing to contribute to nation-building; unfortunately, they have become ‘Crawling Eagles’ under a self-seeking regime of rascals and micro-crooks.
Before 1963, the Monrovia Municipal Fire Brigade was the only public entity responsible to combat fire disasters in Liberia. In October 1963 during the Presidency of William V. S. Tubman, the Legislature passed an Act establishing the Liberia National Fire Service under the Bureau of Public Safety in the Justice Department with the following responsibilities:
Is the Liberia National Fire Service implementing these responsibilities fully? Is this public safety entity keeping by its overall mission which states, “The Liberia National Fire Service exists to safeguard life and property of all residents, Liberians and non-Liberians alike, from the hazards of fire both potential and real throughout the length and breadth of the country, promote efficient fire prevention services, always improving firefighting methods and practices in keeping with international standards, encourage, pursue, and maintain the exchange of ideas, experience, and a cordial working relationship with other firefighting agencies locally and internationally?”
The Liberia National Fire Service has been unable to achieve its overall mandate as a result of funding impediments, less manpower, unqualified and unskilled personnel, absence of modern fire equipment, non-enforcement of zonal laws, temporary facilities, and other competing challenges. The Liberia National Fire Service was more effective and efficient in providing public safety prior to the civil war. Incidents of fire outbreaks were ably controlled by firefighters during those days because adequate resources were available. The current state of LNFS is too troubling. If prompt interventions are not taken in order to avert potential fire destructions, our nation stands to risk a lot. It is time to prioritize public safety through capacity building of fire personnel.
The need to reform LNFS cannot be overstated. The Liberia National Fire Service needs rapid transformation if this government is sincere and serious about protecting more lives and properties from potential fire disasters. Liberia has one of the most ineffective and inefficient firefighting force in West Africa. Much has not been done since 2006 to empower this key public service agency. The need to increase the numerical strength of LNFS is a crucial step forward to enhancing public safety and protection. Our nation can only boast of a well-equipped firefighting force if policy-drivers and decision-makers become more sincere to themselves and those serve.
According to a five year strategic plan produced by LNFS with support from UNDP, the current workforce of LNFS is 545 fire personnel and vast majority of these firefighters are unprofessional and untrained to combat fire disasters. It is a shame to have 30.7 acres of land situated at White Plains, but we cannot even point to a single fire and rescue academy or headquarter. This is a statistical overview of fire personnel Liberians and non-Liberians depend on every day to prevent and control fire occurrences.
Below High School………...182
High School Graduate….…..253
How can 545 persons protect over 3.5 million people from fire tragedy? This means one (1) firefighter is under statutory obligation to provide safety for 6,422 citizens. This is totally impractical and insensitive. Those who call themselves national leaders need to prioritize the wellbeing of our people by investing more resources to upgrade the current capacity of LNFS. It will interest you to know that the Liberia National Fire Service is still renting a private building as its headquarters. This is really appalling. The country needs a state-of-the-art facility in order for LNFS to effectively actualize its mandate.
This is the strength of LNFS in terms of logistical capacity and we think more needs to be done in order to uplift our crawling National Fire Service:
1. Three fire engines
2. One water tanker
3. Five vehicles
4. Two ambulances
5. Six motor bikes
6. One 30-Kva Generator
7. One repeater
8. Three laptops and five desktops
9. Two hundred pieces of uniforms and accessories
10. Fifty pieces of handsets and accessories
11. 30.7 acres of land
Sometimes I wonder how we intend to attract more foreign companies and investments when we lack an effective system of disaster management. If our leaders are seriously about industrializing this country in order to provide more jobs, then they need to build a strong national fire service force. Genuine development can only become a reality if potential fire outbreaks are prevented and ably handled.
According to the strategic plan of LNFS, Liberia has incurred a total loss of $US8, 544,031 from 2006 to 2009 as a result of fire outbreaks. The total number of casualty during this period was 77. LNFS has attributed incidents of fire outbreaks to low public awareness and knowledge, use of lanterns, homemade lamps, candles among others. Traffic congestion, congested neighborhoods due to non-compliance of zoning ordinances make it impossible sometimes for fire trucks to navigate populated communities. These are existing challenges that are also obstructing the operations of LNFS. As our population increases, we must being to find suitable solutions to some of these challenges.
Besides Montserrado County, residents from other counties are completely disconnected from fire services. They have been fighting their own battles since 2006! This is really painful and we think genuine steps need to be taken in order to safeguard lives and properties nationwide. The need to have Fire Brigade in each county or political subdivision is critical to economic expansion. We can prevent fire disasters if those who manage State resources exhibit a high sense of patriotism and loyalty to nationhood. We can achieve this if we truly believe in a new Liberia. It is possible if only we begin to fully implement the Decentralization Plan! We hope this regime has not forgotten about the October 1963 Act that created the Liberia National Fire Service. We can make it better if we are sincere to ourselves and those we serve.
It is always good to identify problems, but it is better to find solutions to those problems. As we have always done, these are recommendations that could help reduce the increasing rate of fire incidents and avert potential casualties:
If these measures are put in place, public safety shall surely become a major priority under this regime and regimes to come. However, we want to encourage all community dwellers to remain very collaborative whenever there is fire outbreak. As we remain restless in making a strong case for our crawling national fire service, it is our hope that this government and its partners will speedily intervene to upgrade the current condition of the Liberia National Fire Service.About The Author: Martin K. N. Kollie is a Liberian youth activist, student leader, an emerging economist, and a young writer. He is currently a student at the University of Liberia reading Economics and a member of the Student Unification Party (SUP).