A Week In The Life Of A Nigerian Firefighter

May 19, 2020

“A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.


The subject for this week is *Kunle, a firefighter. He walks us through duty, sacrifice, and the desire for a better quality of life.

MONDAY:

I wake up by 5:00 am today. I am up early because work resumes by 6:45 am. Before resuming at work, I have to drop my wife at her place of work. So, I wake up early to get a head start.

We run three shifts at work and we take turns rotating through them. I am on morning duty this week and this means that I will be working for 24hrs straight. After this, I will be off duty for 48 hours. 

When I get to work, the first thing I do is check the appliances; the hose, the engine, the fire suits. This is to ensure that they are functioning properly against the next fire emergency call we may get. However, no matter how many precautions we take, sometimes, our appliances still mess up. 

I remember my first day on the job where my crew and I turned out to put off a big fire. When we arrived at the scene, I could see people applauding us for coming so early. Some were even thanking us. I felt so proud to be recognized as a fireman.

Our problem started when it was time to put out the fire and the fire engine for pumping water didn’t work. We tried getting it to work using various methods but still no show. While we were doing this, the crowd was getting angry and they started piling stones to throw at us. As God would have it, another fire truck came around and rescued us. No matter what happens, that single incident is a moment I won’t ever forget.

It can be annoying because we go through so much to get to the fire scene only for the crowd to turn on us. It’s even scarier when I think about it because fire servicemen don’t carry arms and the mob knows this.

For me, fire doesn’t scare me. What scares me is the mob. Fighting the fire is not a problem because we have been trained to do that. Rescuing people is not an issue because you derive joy in doing that. However, doing these things at the site of the operation without any form of protection from a mob is scary. 

All of these are why I spend the first part of my shift inspecting the equipment and ensuring that they are in good working condition. After I am done, I spend the rest of the day sitting with my colleagues and waiting to see if we get a fire call. Sometimes, if we get lucky, there may be no fire. Other times, we respond to 4 – 5 fire calls in one shift. 

No matter what happens, I have a long day ahead of me. 

THURSDAY

I have been off work for the past two days and I am not eager to resume today. I have spent the last two days alternating between resting and spending time with my family. I have been catching up on a series called three percent on Netflix. It’s an old series but it’s still so good. But now, work resumes all over again.

Don’t get me wrong, even though I am hesitant to resume, I still love my job die. I am a proud fireman. Although I didn’t grow up dreaming of putting out fires and rescuing people, I have come to love the work. For me, It started out as a job to do because of the economy. However, during the training school to become a fireman, I fell in love with it. 

As a layman, I used to think fighting fire is to just pour water into the fire. But in the training school, I had to do some Chemistry and Physics to understand what supports fire, the kind of extinguishing element for different types of fires.

Fire contains three elements – air, heat, and fuel. So, if you want to extinguish a fire, you have to take one element out of the three to improve your chances. Also, depending on the cause of the fire, you use a different approach. For electrical fire, you don’t expect to just go there with water because if you do, you can get electrocuted. There are certain steps you need to take if at all you get called up with water to fight an electrical fire. The first thing to do is to put off the source of power before fighting with water. 

If it’s oil fire, that is a fire caused by oil spillage, using water only adds fuel to the fire. This is because oil stays on top of the water. So, as the water is splashing and running, it carries the oil and extends the fuel. In this scenario, the best agent to make use of is foam. It will engulf the fuel; it will contain it by eliminating the air supply. So, wherever the oil has spread to, the foam forms a blanket around it and stops it there.

Before going to training school, I did not know that and I just assumed all fire could be combatted with water.

Another thing this job has shown me is that a lot of fire accidents are caused by negligence. Car fires are caused mostly by issues that have been there but the owner has been ignoring. For residential areas, the majority of house fires are caused by A.C. Not switching off your A.C when you are going out and then electrical power coming on and setting off a spark that starts a fire. The root of every fire is mostly negligence.

I don’t want to think about all of these. I am just focused on surviving my shift. I am looking forward to the weekend. I hope I get to rest but I know my wife will most likely drag me out on Saturday. She enjoys shopping. She defends her reason for making me drive from the mainland to the Island with the fact that shopping is relaxing for her. It’s therapeutic. Women sha. 

Last last, that one is still better than all these fire talk. 

SUNDAY.

The most annoying thing about this job is the disrespect. Disrespect from fellow motorists who will be dragging road with you when you are rushing for an emergency. Disrespect from the mob at the scene of the fire who want to throw stones because we were late as a result of stubborn motorists. 

Today, at the scene of a fire, some of the touts tried to collect our equipment. They wanted to put out the fire themselves. I kept telling them that it’s not their job and they should allow us to work in peace. At the end of the day, we had to reach a compromise. We allowed them to carry less sensitive materials so they could feel useful. Because we don’t carry arms, things can get tricky really fast. So, it’s up to your discretion to navigate these things especially when it comes to the touts at fire scenes. They know that we don’t carry weapons so all we can really do is find a middle ground with them. 

For active fires, a squad puts it out. The squad consists of 4 men. They are numbered 1-4. Number one is the officer in charge, the branch man. Number two is the pump operator and he operates the appliance; pumping water and regulating pressure. Number three is the assistant branch man who assists the branch man and sometimes swaps with him if he’s tired. He also assists in carrying the hose. Number four is the messenger. Sometimes, at the scene of the fire, there is a distance between where the branch is located and the appliance pumping water. The messenger stands as an intermediary between the number 1 and 2. He helps to relay information like turning on of water, an increase in hose length, and adjustment of water pressure.

I am playing the role of assistant branch manager today.  So, I am behind the branch manager(my boss) who’s trying to put out the fire. He’s going too close to the fire and I have to constantly pull him back. He tells me that there’s a spirit that possesses you when holding the branch that makes you want to put out the fire at all costs. Me, I no dey do pass myself. I am not trying to be a hero. 

I can’t wait for this fire to die down because I need to call my wife. I am sure she has been worried about me. I didn’t tell I was going to a fire site. I like telling her after we are done. I can’t stand her being constantly worried because of the nature of my job. 

WEDNESDAY

The funniest question I get asked as a fireman is if I have life insurance. It never fails to crack me up. Ordinarily, we should have but we don’t. For a fireman, the most honorable thing that can happen is to be buried and given salute. And that’s it.

I have heard of families chased out of the barracks on the death of the breadwinner who was an officer. There’s a family where the parents who were officers died. The father died in the line of duty and the mother died in a road accident. After allowing their children to stay in the barracks for a while, they were told to evacuate.

Many officers see this and they know that if they die in the line of duty, this is the fate that will befall their family. I have heard some of my superiors tell me that on getting to the scene of a fire and seeing that there was no chance of putting out the fire, they turned back. They said they met an impossible task and an already agitated mob who were cursing them for being late. It just made sense to turn back without entering into the scene. You can only do what you can do, you can’t kill yourself. At the end of the day, you didn’t set the place on fire.

As I go to work today, I just pray that I return home safely. When my mum heard that I joined the force, she kept on begging me. “O fe ma pana, jor. Ma pà mí”. I consoled myself with the fact that if I don’t do it, someone else will do it – somebody has to do it. 

I remember when I watched one inspiring Chinese movie about firemen titled Brave Heart and I went to work with ginger the next day. After comparing the facilities in that movie with my own surrounding at work, I asked myself: “Is this where I want to give my best to?” I just relaxed oh.

I won’t even lie, there are perks that come with being an officer; I don’t have to constantly renew my car papers. Also, I get away with a couple of things here and there. But that doesn’t balance it out in any way. 

Anyhow, I still show up because I am a fireman. I am dedicated to the job. It’s actually a thing of joy to serve your country if only your country recognizes it. Firemen across the world, the respect they get…I have not been outside the country, but I was told that firemen don’t pay for fares. They go to the supermarket to buy groceries and there’s a certain percentage they get as a discount. Fire service is respected and it’s a very prestigious job In Europe and other countries, but this is the country where I find myself. What can I do?

I don’t want to think about it. I am looking forward to the end of the day. When I get home, I will watch my favourite Bollywood movie “We Are Family”. Even though I have seen it countless times, it’s the perfect bonding movie for a family. Any day I come back home in one piece is a good day. That’s why I try to spend as much time as possible with my family.


Glossary:

“O fe ma pana, jor. Ma pà mí” – You want to be putting out fire, please don’t kill me.

This story was edited for clarity. Some details have been changed to protect the identity of the subject.


Check back every Tuesday by 9 am for more “A Week In The Life Of” goodness, and if you would like to be featured or you know anyone who fits the profile, don’t hesitate to reach out. Reach out to me: hassan@bigcabal.com if you want to be featured on this series.

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