Building collapses: Govt. agencies lack heavy machinery for rescue operations. Here’s why

ON WEDNESDAY, March 13, a three-storey building, which housed a primary school and was located at 63 Massey Street, Ita Faaji, Lagos Island, collapsed with many trapped inside, including a pregnant woman and young pupils.

12 persons, including nine children, were reported to have been killed in the incident while 50 others were rescued by residents and officials of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA). The casualties could however have been lesser had appropriate help arrived on time.

The New York Times reported that rescue crews did not arrive at the scene until after one hour during which residents had already started digging through the rubble in search for victims.

“We started the rescue efforts and had rescued over 20 children alive before the emergency agencies came,” Adegoke Sharafa told the paper.

On-lookers described them still, even after their arrival, as “ill-equipped” as, for instance, no oxygen masks were available for workers to protect themselves.

It was also reported that Julius Berger, a construction company headquartered in Abuja, had to send equipment to assist rescue efforts — a move that has become recurrent following such collapses.

The construction company, deploying its heavy equipment, was at the scene to rescue members of the Reigners Bible Ministry, in Uyo, Akwa Ibom, after the church caved in in 2016 during a service.

Its workers were also at the forefront of evacuation efforts in August after the collapse of three-storey building under construction in Jabi, Abuja.

“Although government agencies like National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), FCT Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Fire Service, Civil Defence, Red Cross, Police, VIO, FRSC were already on ground,” a report by ThisDay Newspaper noted, “they could only do little because they lacked the appropriate equipment to carry out the operation.”

In November, the same pattern played out in Port Harcourt after a seven-storey building that was under construction collapsed, immediately trapping about 60 persons, including construction workers and traders.

More than a week after the incident, however, dozens were still trapped under what was left of the structure.

Ejike Martins, the NEMA official who coordinated the rescue efforts, had disclosed to The ICIR that the federal agency does not have the kind of heavy equipment needed for the rescue operations. The types NEMA possesses, he said, are those that may be deployed for instance during auto crashes. The agency does not have those capable of cutting through iron rods and concrete slabs, which had to be supplied by Julius Berger and some multinational oil companies operating in the state.

NEMA explains

We could not get a comment from Julius Berger as the public relations officer who spoke to our reporter said she cannot speak on the subject, promising to send the enquiry to her superior. NEMA’s press officer, Manzo Ezekiel, however, explained that NEMA’s blueprint allows it to collaborate with other organisations in managing disasters.

“NEMA is a coordinating agency and we have understanding with all relevant organisations with regards to various forms of disaster. So anytime there are circumstances like that, we call out the organisations that are identified with the equipment that may be useful for such responses,” he said during a phone interview.

“If your organisation has resources that are useful for disaster response, and there is a circumstance that demands that we call you, we will do it. It is part of our laws,” he added.

He said, because of disaster management’s extensiveness, the government cannot be expected to buy all the materials needed.

“How many times do we experience building collapse and how much do you think is the cost of those equipment?” the spokesman asked.

“So you don’t expect government to use a lot of money, buy equipment that may not be put to use for maybe years. Some of these heavy equipment you are talking about, they need to be put to use all the time. They require greasing, they require maintenance, and all these things are very expensive. Government cannot afford to do that.”

Asked if these organisations are paid, Manzo said he cannot speak on the terms of payment. He admitted that the implementation of the blueprint is not as perfect as specified and there have been lapses, but added that the agency has worked on improving on its methods.

He said: “Disaster management is everybody’s job. It is multi-sectoral, multi-dimensional. It involves a lot of organisations. So everybody must be prepared. You can’t afford to see a disaster and say because you are not a disaster management agency you fold your hands. If there’s any demand for payment, that can be settled thereafter. But definitely disaster is something that one organisation cannot do without the help of others.”

The functions of NEMA, according to its establishment Act, include the coordination of the provision of necessary resources for search and rescue and other types of disaster curtailment activities, as well as the coordination of the activities of all voluntary organisations engaged in emergency relief operations.

Also, the National Disaster Management Framework (NDMF), passed in 2011, states that the agency is to “mobilise financial and technical resources from private sector, international non-governmental organisations and development partners for the purpose of disaster management in Nigeria”.

The National Disaster Response Framework also includes private sector organisations as part of groups that may provide assistance, “following a major disaster or emergency”.

Painstaking demolition, or just a crude method?

Responding to the recent disaster in Lagos, the state government decided to immediately follow through with the demolition of defective houses already marked for demolition years back.

The Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) started the demolition on Friday, March 15.

Lekan Shodeinde, General Manager of LASBCA, had told newsmen that 20 houses  would be demolished that day. Other sources reported the figure as 29, while in all 180 structures would be pulled down during the exercise.

Punch Newspaper however reported that “the agency eventually pulled down only three buildings as of close of work on the first day of the demolition exercise”.

This may be because of the meticulous, manual method adopted in breaking down the structures.

Omotayo Fakolujo, an official of the agency, explained that this approach was used because the structures are close to one another.

    “We have to remove them systematically, manually so that we can ensure that there is safety,” he told journalists.

    Timothy Okonkwo, a project engineer at Migliore Construczione and Tecniche Limited, confirmed the appropriateness of the method to The ICIR.

    “Considering the closeness of the neighbouring buildings, a manual top-down method will be best suggested and is mostly employed,” he explained.

    “Using machinery or explosives will definitely have impact on neighbouring buildings through vibration or seismic effects.”

    'Kunle works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via [email protected] or, if you're feeling particularly generous, follow him on Twitter @KunleBajo.

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