Nazir Bongay, Chief Fire Officer, Sierra Leone

'The fire unit is part of the national security architecture'

Joshua Yarjah and James Gray
in conversation with
Nazir Bongay
30 July 2021

If Nazir Bongay and his team live by one principle, it’s that if disaster calls, they answer. In his 11 years as Chief Fire Officer, Bongay, 56, has overseen not just the National Fire Force’s response to hundreds of conflagrations, but also search-and-rescue operations for other disasters, like the mudslide in 2017.

Firefighters in Sierra Leone have very little time to rest. According to one report, there were 547 fires recorded between 2011 and 2015 in Freetown alone, out of which 476 were residential fires. So far in 2021, there have been "well over 600 fires" across the nation, with the past two weeks accounting for 50 fire incidents. "The numbers will rise and fall depending upon the time of year," Bongay says. "In Sierra Leone, it is always hot at the start of the year, and we get more fires in February, March, and April. There are fires during the rains too, but not as large as what we expect during the dry season."

But fires are not the only disaster events that Bongay's force deals with. If fires are an ever-present danger in the dry season, then the wet season brings floods and landslides. Here too, the National Fire Force is a key component of Sierra Leone’s disaster response machinery. “When there is a fire, when people are trapped, when there is a mudslide, we are there. That rush, that push to go there, to save other people… that has been my passion and that is what has kept me in the job,” Bongay says.

It was not exactly passion that drove him to apply for the job of a fire cadet in 1993, though, at the age of 28. “I had been teaching at the Bishop Johnson Memorial School for two years when I saw the advertisements. They said that they wanted to recruit science graduates in the fire force. I’d graduated with a chemistry major and mathematics minor, so I thought it was a good fit.” On his first day as a trainee cadet, Bongay still had doubts, but these soon dissipated. “I started to look at what it entails to be a firefighter. Your sacrifice, your energy, the fact that you have to leave everything you’re doing to go out there and rescue other people. It has been a very wonderful journey,” he says.

Bongay climbed the ranks of the Fire Force rapidly, and also participated in several training programmes abroad, bringing back his learnings to Sierra Leone. “I had the opportunity to go to Liverpool in the UK for extensive fire training, including search and rescue. Then, I also went to Singapore twice, where I did urban search and rescue and international fire disaster management. In China, I did emergency affairs,” he says.

Today, he works from the top floor of the red-and-blue-painted headquarters of the Fire Force, where a smart red door labelled 'Chief Fire Officer' announces his office. Inside, Bongay cuts a commanding figure behind a large polished desk. The walls display photographs of him during different points in his career, and a fire extinguisher sits prominently in a corner. The chief has a serious demeanour, but he is also welcoming and down-to-earth. “Let me switch off the AC,” he says, “it may disturb the recording.”

There is a lot to talk about. In his 11 years as fire chief, Bongay has helped the fire force increase its capabilities, but there have also been gruelling challenges, such as during the Susan’s Bay fire where the lack of proper roads hindered the response of firefighters. In a wide-ranging interview, Bongay spoke to Tie u Orja about the challenges of firefighting in Sierra Leone, the disaster vulnerabilities of Freetown, and what people can do to reduce their risk. The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity.

Can you talk to us about the science of firefighting?

It’s combustion chemistry. We normally call it the triangle of fire: first, you have what is supposed to burn, the combustible elements, which can be anything — solid, liquid, gas, a building, a human being, anything. Then, we have the planet which consists of about 21 per cent oxygen, so you have plentiful supply of oxygen. Finally, there’s heat. When something gets heated to a certain point, what we call the ignition point for that particular material, it will just burst into flame. So, you need all the three things together: you need the heat, the oxygen, and the combustible material.

There are different types of combustible materials, of course. We have those that can be referred to as free-burning materials, such as papers, tabletops, or chairs. Then we have those that are flammable liquids like petrol and diesel. Then we have gases like Shelltox, the normal sprays we use. So, we have a lot of gases that can burn easily. If you increase the temperature there will be ignition…  and the temperature can be increased in different ways. Somebody can strike a match and a naked flame can increase the temperature of that particular area. You can also increase the temperature through electricity. By putting a lot of different electrical materials into a particular circuit… the current can make the air warmer and warmer in, say, a junction box. If it reaches the ignition temperature of the material that is used to make that box, it can burst into flame.

There are times when ordinary sun rays may be sufficient to create a fire if the place is extremely hot and there is a lot of combustible material, things with a low ignition point.

What are the fundamentals that guide firefighters?

Firefighting has the same fundamentals the world over. We talk about lives and then we talk about property. Whenever there is a fire incident, the first thing that the firefighters will consider is whether there are people trapped. If people are trapped, the mode of operation is that you want to rescue them first. If people are not trapped then the mode of operation will then go to just fighting the fire. So, it’s life first and then property.

When there is a fire you must respond, and respond within the shortest possible time to get people out of harm’s way and within the shortest possible time try to extinguish the fire. Then you try to review, try to do an assessment of the damage that might have occurred… because you need that information also to feed into the national disaster platform.

There’s a common fire service saying: “Every fire is different.”

When people say that every fire is different, it doesn’t mean that the triangle is different. The chemistry behind the fire will be the same: the combustible material, the oxygen, the heat.

Fires can be different in how we break the triangle. Sometimes, we try to break that triangle by removing the element of heat, such as by putting water to cool the environment. Then there are times when you can also break the triangle by removing the oxygen, like by covering the entire area or enveloping it with foam. I remember when I was little, my mother would fry food in the kitchen. Sometimes, the fire would just jump to the top of the frying pot, and my mother would quickly cover the pot and the fire would go off. Little did I know then that this was chemistry at play, and that covering the pot meant starving the fire of oxygen. Once a fire is starved of its normal receiving oxygen, it just dies off.

Fires can also be different because the burning materials are  different. We have attended fires in a plastics factory, for example. In such fires, you expect the product of combustion to be different. A lot of sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, and other sulphur compounds can be released because some plastics are made up of vulcanised rubber. It’s different if you are fighting fore in a forest, where trees are burning. Then, most of the gases released will be carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and all of that.

So, when people say different fires may be different, the by-product of fire may be different or even the structure. Somebody might have fire in a small pan structure, somebody else may have fire in a mansion. The end result, though, is that you have something on fire, you have what is supporting the combustion, you have the heat element.

Can you take us through a routine firefighting session? What kind of procedures do you follow?

We have a watch room where all fire calls are received. Once the fire call is received, the attendant will strike a bell and then shout the address: “Fire at Mountain Cot, number 23!”

Officers are always present at the fire station, and once the bell rings and the address is announced, they rush directly to the fire engine, start the fire engine, and off they go. When you come for duty, the first thing we do is put you on your riding position. So, they know exactly which position to take when riding. Every riding position knows the equipment they’re using in the vehicle. If I’m number one I know I’m supposed to be with the person doing command and I’m supposed to be replacing and acting in the capacity of the branch number one man. The number two man is the driver and so on and so forth. Once the firefighters reach the scene, they dismount and go into operation.

Why do you think Sierra Leone is so prone to fires?

Well, there are many factors, although many people will just say that there are very poor structures in many communities, especially the slum communities. Yes, we have many structures that are built with zinc sheets and sticks and more combustible materials in the bay communities, hillside communities. But that is purely for slum communities. There are many other houses in Sierra Leone that are properly built concrete structures, and there are fires there too. The people play a role here… for instance, their style of usage [of fire or electricity]. They have kitchens, but sometimes when there is more cooking to do, like during festivals, people use naked fire. That’s an area of concern.

Every year we look at the statistics and Freetown produces the highest number of fire incidents. However, it is not because of the slum communities per se, but because of the infrastructure

Another area is the electricity infrastructure. Remember that we were in a civil war for a very long time and most of the infrastructure was broken during that period, and as a nation we are still trying to rebuild it. Most of the cables in people’s houses and offices are old… they’ve been there for over 20 years. We all know if you have a poor cable network in your house and there is a surge in electrical currents it might just erupt and create a fire situation.

Then, there’s the weather. We are in a region where the weather conditions favour more fires. We must remember that there are times when it gets so hot here that the environment becomes more prone to fire. Many people might say we enjoy six months of rain. That’s true, but we must know that fire is something that takes place when you have a sufficient amount of heat, oxygen, and combustible material present. These three come together a lot in a place like Sierra Leone, you have a lot of combustible materials out there.

Is it correct to say Freetown is the most vulnerable to fires in the country?

Of course. Every year we look at the statistics and Freetown produces the highest number of fire incidents. However, it is not because of the slum communities per se, but because of the infrastructure. You must remember that the capital city has more people, and the more people you have in the community the more prone that community will be to disasters because people have different ways of behaving. With many people packed together, you will have some who will be using petrol, some who will be using kerosene, some who will be smoking in different areas.

Trauma is just part of our work. There are times you go to a fire and you see other people die. Sometimes, you have to collect bones… whole human beings reduced to pieces you can put into a narrow bag

Freetown is the largest populated area in Sierra Leone and definitely wherever you have more people, that is where you think you’re going to have more fires. However, in the provinces like Bo, Kenema, Makeni, Kono, Moyamba, and other areas, they do have fires, although these are often bushfires. So, we have more bushfires also in Sierra Leone. They also have their own fair share of the fire, the people in the provinces.

Freetown generates more numbers because you have more houses, you have more people, you are exposed to whatever you want to call infrastructure. In Sierra Leone, Freetown has more of that than the other areas and infrastructure also has its own dangers. The more houses you make, the more fires you bring in.

You must know that for firefighting, everything is a combustible material. Even I am a combustible material. If you put me in an area where enough heat is generated, I’m likely to burn. So, the population dictates the fire pattern we have in Freetown.

We don’t have firemen and firewomen anymore, we have firefighters. Gender doesn’t matter. What matters is your character, your dexterity to work, your courage, your team spirit, your professionalism

Was this congestion an issue during the Susan’s Bay fire?

In slum communities, they don’t build their houses independently. So, you have one house being built and another one can join it. When you take an aerial view of the slum community, it looks just like a single unit with multiple joints together. It was a problem for us that night (of the Susan’s Bay fire) because the fire started very close to the sea. We were at the back of it at Hagan Street so we needed to find a way to burst through all those pan structures before we could actually move to the source or the seat of the fire and get it out.

Also, there was no road to actually access Susan’s Bay when the fire erupted. So, we had to attack the fire from two different ends, one at Fisher Street and another at Hagan Street, and connect 16 lengths of hoses. Now every length is 100 metres so you’re talking about 1,600 meters from the fire engine to the fire. That tells you that there was no way the fire engines could have gone down where that fire was.

Looking at Susan’s Bay, what we have learned is that whatever response you mount, and however fast you are, if the roads are not passable then you will lose some time

I remember that particular night, we battled for six hours and firefighters had to be climbing up and down that sloped area, coming to the engine, getting things back to the fire. It was difficult but then that is the work of being a firefighter, you don’t complain of those things.

Are there similar problems that get in the way of fire response in other parts of the city?

It’s a big issue. Freetown is a nice town but then we must remember that it has like a three-segment topography. We have the city centre, and then the slope going down the ocean — that’s where normally we get these slum communities — and then we have the mountain areas. Most of the streets going to these slum communities are bad. There are also other hillside areas that are impassable.

Though the roads are relatively better around midtown and the city centre, traffic can be a serious problem. There are times when going from this area where I’m sitting (A J Momoh Street) to the east you encounter serious traffic around Kissy Road and Fourah Bay Road. So, if there is fire around that area and during the day when the traffic is heavy then of course you need to put in more work to put on more sirens and get people and other vehicles off the road.

Here, we have many roads that are narrow, some are bumpy, some places like Susan’s Bay don’t even have a road, we only have footpaths where people can pass.

It’s been nearly four months since the Susan’s Bay fire. What lessons has the force learned from the incident?

Looking at Susan’s Bay, what we have learned is that whatever response you mount, and however fast you are, if the roads are not passable then you will lose some time.

We had to take some time to assess the Bay. We went there on time but to actually go down to where the fire was, we had to connect many hoses and had to pass through twists and turns around the pan structures — and the fire doesn’t wait for you to have that luxury to fix all your equipment, it will just keep on raging. Our work is that of time and effect… the less time you take to extinguish the fire, the more beautiful that scenario will be. But then in some instances, like if you have communities where it becomes very difficult to enter, then it becomes a serious problem. We had to move fire the engines, crisscrossing from the scene of the fire and going to find water, and then getting back to the fire. So, those were challenges.

In your many years as a firefighter, what has changed in the way the National Fire Force operates?

When I came to this department, there was just one station, the one where we are now sitting, and just one fire engine. Today, we have fire stations scattered all over in the country. Now, we can have two or three different fire engines responding to a particular fire. Some amount of efficiency has been established because of what we now have. It is now a different story.

Sierra Leone obviously has had a long history of battling disasters. In some cases, fires also expose the vulnerabilities that are present in the country. For example, if there is a school or a hospital that is burnt down, this will actually prevent people from getting an education or accessing healthcare. Therefore, effectively tackling fires is extremely important. Is this recognised at the national policy level?

Gone are the days when the fire service was operating in just a little corner. When I started, fire was seen more as a Freetown issue. Now we’re talking about it as a national issue. So, there has been an evolution from a smaller unit to a bigger unit. And the unit now has a presence in the national security architecture of this country. We have consultations with our colleagues in the police, in the military… We are shifting from the past where the fire service was left alone to battle fires. Now the Chief Fire Officer sits at security committee meetings and we all put our ideas together to make a better and safer Sierra Leone.

Can you tell us a little more about the recent additions to the fire infrastructure? What more needs to be done?

We now have four fire stations in Freetown, one of which also serves as our training school. Outside Freetown, we have a fire station in Bo, Kenema, Makeni, Kono, Kambia, Moyamba. We have also built one in Pujehun, we have built one in Kabala… both of these are in the far South and far North of the country respectively, but they have not been opened yet. This year, the president was supposed to open one in Freetown and the other one in Kabala but we are now trapped in this entire global pandemic. Towards the end of last year, His Excellency the President Dr Bio also commissioned the Kailahun fire station.

In disaster-related issues, we are the first responders. In fact, we were the first people to be there when the mudslide took place. There was no fire, so the search-and-rescue part of our work came into play

So, what we are doing presently is establishing the fire service in areas where they are needed, where we have never been. Earlier, people lost their lives and their property and it was not even recorded properly. In future, we need to also look at modernising our equipment.

As the country develops, the fire equipment will have to keep improving. For example, we have started seeing high-rise buildings like the Youyi building, Sam Bangura building, even the new city hall. In the future, we need engines and equipment that can be effective in those types of buildings. As we look at improving the national infrastructure, the fire service should not be left out.

In terms of human resources, do you have volunteers as well as full-time firefighters?

Unlike in some other parts of the world, we do not have a structured volunteering force. We’ve trained a lot of people in different communities… people who may just want to help, but they are not volunteering or being deployed per se.

What about women firefighters?

We do have female firefighters and I want to assure you that they are fantastic. Earlier, of course, firefighting was purely a male-dominated job, even at the time when I was recruited. However, after I got my UK training — I was just an intermediate officer then, not a senior — we started influencing decisions and got our first group of female firefighters.

This is one of the establishments in the country where there is no structure limiting or inhibiting a woman from growing. They have the same opportunities as the men, they are deployed in the same operations, they fight fire as well as men do. They are promoted when the time comes. As I speak, we have one or two senior officers that are women and they are playing a vital part. Even our legal mind here is a woman, a female firefighter is a lawyer.

We don’t have firemen and firewomen anymore, we have firefighters. Gender doesn’t matter. What matters is your character, your dexterity to work, your courage, your team spirit, your professionalism. Those are the criteria that work here.

In March 2021, the Sierra Leone Government announced new funding for the National Fire Force in the form of rice supplies for officers, spare vehicles, and furniture. Is this level of funding enough?

You must know that this funding was not just for rice for officers! It was also meant for creating three additional fire stations and purchasing additional fire engines. In fact, we are in the far advanced stage of the procurement for these engines and stations.

Of course, if you ask me as a professional or as a Chief Fire Officer, I will say that we need more. We need more stations, more equipment, more manpower. But then we must be realistic here. The government has taken some bold steps in giving us more fire engines and commissioning fire stations. So, there is some amount of growth.

As for rice for officers… we normally get rice for officers every year. Our job is daunting and challenging, and this improves the morale of our firefighters.

Speaking of morale, firefighters have to be in extremely difficult and dangerous situations. There must be psychological impacts, trauma…

Trauma is just part of our work. There are times you go to a fire and you see other people die. Sometimes, you have to collect bones… whole human beings reduced to pieces you can put into a narrow bag. There are times we leave the fire trembling. There are times when we feel like we let people down. There are times when it is horrific, honestly.

We have also been victims and sustained injuries, multiple times. There was a fire at Kissy where a group of firefighters sustained injuries to their ears because of a loud blast… it affected their hearing for a while.

Has COVID-19 made your operations more difficult?

It has. We have to go everywhere, we have to go to every community. We are also humans and we are also prone to COVID-19 and that means that we have to step up our own protection. Everybody here is vaccinated and using face masks. This year through the intervention of the World Bank, our colleague firefighters from Scotland, and, of course, the Freetown rapid response rehabilitation program we were able to get some protective clothing. This has enabled us to respond with confidence because when we are going out there, we know that whether for COVID-19 or for another reason, we are protected.

The fire force also responds to other disasters, like the mudslide. Can you share a little bit about that?

Well, in disaster-related issues here we are the first responders. In fact, we were the first people to be there when the mudslide took place. There was no fire, so the search-and-rescue part of our work came into play. We started removing people from the rubble, trying to dig people out… we were overwhelmed by the extent of the damage and so other forces were also called in, like the police and the military. They worked with my team to extract people. Many of the people we got out of the mud were dead and had to be taken to the mortuary. Even there, at the mortuary, we had our team trying to create a sanitary environment, cleaning up the bodies. Even at the burial sites, we had to be there to carry out fumigation so that the whole thing may not erupt into another disease outbreak. So, those were the roles we played during that mudslide.

The World Bank team that came to assess the mudslide situation commended the fire service. In fact, it was because of that participation that the fire service was allocated some more resources like search-and-rescue equipment and more fire protective gear.

You also play a role in dealing with the problems of the monsoon season.

Before the rains, we started repositioning ourselves for floods. There are times when because of rains we have water spilling over a major road and there are times when it blocks traffic. The fire service is positioned to make sure that if that occurs again this year, we will go there and try to divert the water using our engines and using our trailer pumps. We have some search-and-rescue equipment that we can easily deploy in areas where disasters do occur.

However good the infrastructure is, fires are bound to happen. Therefore, we have to improve upon the infrastructure of the fire service itself

However, there are also fires during the rainy season. In Freetown, if you go to the eastern part of the city most of the people do their cooking in an open space — they call it the outside kitchen. But when it rains, people do their cooking inside, in the verandah or even the parlour. They take the fire literally into the house. Just last night we were battling a fire at Wellington even though it was raining.

What, in your view, needs to be done now in order to reduce the number of fires occurring across Sierra Leone?

I firmly believe that as we continue in our developmental drives, we will be able to do more in terms of infrastructure. That’s where I think there is a need for us to improve. There are two sides of the story of course. We might say we need better housing units in the communities or that we should remove people from the slums, but can we just move 15,000 people? It’s a dicey thing. We must remember that we are part of a government… we have to look at everybody together.

One positive development has been that the energy sector is now improving. There is more electricity around and that means that fewer people may now use firewood or charcoal for their cooking. But however good the infrastructure is, fires are bound to happen. Therefore, we have to improve upon the infrastructure of the fire service itself. As I have mentioned, we are making progress on this front.

As someone who has spent 28 years fighting fires, how would you describe your personal relationship to fire?

I don’t think fire is all that bad. We use fire every day. We do not fight those little fires that somebody had to make to cook. I also cook and I love it by the way, so fire is just part of human life.

What the fire service normally fights is a fire that is uncontrollable. That fire that goes into a destructive mood and wants to engulf a house, an office, a car. What the service does is protect against a fire that may move from a light mood to a destructive one.

What advice would you give to the people of Freetown to protect themselves and their community?

We are now moving into the rainy season, so I will now encourage people to continue to use their open kitchens if they have them. During the rains, most people want to start cooking in their houses… they should stop those practices. Cook only in the designated areas.

To those who are using electrical appliances, stop overloading electrical circuits. You are bringing yourself into a risky situation if you put your electric iron, heater, kettle, and television on just one plug. Even if you have extensions, be mindful that you are still taking the current from just one source. So, if you have all your equipment connected to this one source by your extension you are actually increasing the heat in that area and as it continues to increase, it will reach the ignition temperature and it will just go off.

I would advise that when you go out, remove plugs from sockets and switch off your lights. It is economical and reduces risk at the same time. Let us be learning these types of things. In Freetown, most of the fires would be electrical. The country is trying to develop electrical infrastructure. The cables that have been for more than 10 or 20 years are starting to perish, so people should be mindful and make sure we all protect ourselves.

In case of a fire, what should people do while they wait for the fire team?

If the house is equipped with fire extinguishers, you can use them but only at the early stage when the fire is very small. My advice would be that whether or not you are using an extinguisher, you should call the fire service immediately. Even if we get there and you’ve already put out the fire, it’s just a plus for you. The quicker you get the fire service out, the better the chances for controlling a fire.

I’ve been to so many fires where we were called only after the house was completely engulfed. Fire is not a reversible reaction and that’s what many people don’t know. It’s not like we will go there and pump water and all those things that have been burnt will come back again. The toll-free lines are 300, 301, and 302.

Photograph of Nazir Bongay: Joshua Yarjah. Cover graphic: Sunil Krishnan
Copy editor: Asavari Singh. Editor: Chindu Sreedharan