An often-repeated phrase contends that firefighters are the same everywhere. Most people who have visited a fair number of fire stations locally or nationwide would agree with this. But that phrase would just as accurate if stated about the fire service internationally.
But it is not so true that all fire departments are the same. Despite the fact that man's efforts to cope with the outbreak of unwanted fire is well into its second millennium, each local, regional, state and national fire service is very different from the others.
At the invitation of Ghana's chief fire officer, I spent 10 days touring a variety of the country's facilities. The Ghana National Fire Service faces many difficulties and yet can make significant strides in the next few years if its leaders stay focused on their strategic initiatives.
Ghana is an area on the west coast of Africa, on the Gulf of Guinea, between Cote D' Ivorie (Ivory Coast) and Togo. At one time, Ghana had been referred to as the Gold Coast. The country was formed from a merger of the British colony of the Gold Coast and the Togoland trust territories in 1957, becoming the first sub-Saharan nation in colonial Africa to gain its independence. Ghana encompasses approximately 92,456 square miles, slightly smaller than Oregon. Its 22 million people are distributed in two distinctly different environments. The vast majority of the people live in rural areas with heavy concentrations in five cities: Accra, Ghana's capital; Kumasi, in the middle of the country; Tema and Takoradi, both port cities; and Bolgatanga in Ghana's upper-east region.
The climate is tropical, warm and comparatively dry in the southeast coast and hot and humid in the southwest. The northern part is mostly hot and dry. From January to March, the Harmattan winds blow from the northeast. Drought is a frequent problem. The terrain consists of mostly low plains with plateaus in the south-central area.
The country boasts the largest man-made lake in the world — Lake Volta, which is the result of the 1965 Aksosombo hydroelectric dam project that backs the water from two rivers: the White Volta and the Black Volta. It serves as a catch basin for Ghana's interior. The lake averages 15.5 miles wide, is about 280 miles long and has a shoreline of nearly 3,000 miles. This one facility provides about 95% of the nation's power. It also provides for internal transportation, being served by both ferries and cargo boats. Ghana has about 227 miles of railroads and 24,197 miles of highway, of which 5,808 are paved. Two-lane dirt roads are common outside of the cities.
The country is a constitutional democracy that is broken into 10 administrative regions. A president and a 200-member parliament govern with a system is based on English common law.
The country is well endowed with natural resources, with roughly twice the per capita output of the other West African countries. Agriculture constitutes about 36% of the gross national production. The primary exports are cocoa, rice, coffee, palm oil and teak. Industrial output is about 25%. Gold and diamonds also are produced. The per capita income is about $2,000.
English is the official language. There are six major languages and several dialects used by citizens there. They include Akan, Hausa, Ga, Ewe, Nzema and Dagbani.
The Ghana National Fire Service was established in 1963, when it began to evolve to address its own issues. Prior to that, the fire service was heavily influenced from being a British colony and its fire technology was primarily British based.
To protect such a vast area, the Ghana National Fire Service has 140 fire stations; 11 are located in Accra. The service has approximately 6,000 full-time paid personnel and is supplemented by volunteers in rural areas. One interesting note is that the country has about 18,000 police officers. The government provides special housing to most of the police officers, but does not provide that same accommodation to firefighters. The number of volunteers varies according to seasonal and economic aspects, but is estimated at 12,000. Moreover, the volunteers are under the direction of the local governments in the various regions and districts.
Chief Fire Officer Felix Ferkah heads the fire service. He has been at the helm for about two years, but is a seasoned veteran with a résumé that goes back 18 years.
The National Fire Service also has a board of commissioners known as the Fire Service Council that is headed by Dr. Daniel Berkoh. He is a senior lecturer at the Ghana Institute Management Public Administration. He also is a chief in the literal sense of the word, having the responsibility of sitting on a stool that has been used by his community's chiefs for more than 500 years.
Ghana officials want to improve the country's economic profile and need a contemporary fire service to attract business and industry. There are several Western companies doing business in Ghana, including Nestle and Shell, and others such as a major hotel chain that are planning to set up shop. There is pressure to assure these companies and their insurers that the country has a capable fire service.
One of Ferkah's first acts as fire chief was to draft and adopt a strategic plan to address that goal. With this process, he put into place a series of events to produce improvements in the delivery of services that may result in improving the economics of the country.
The fire service headquarters is in Accra. Consistent with the national government, the fire service is divided into 10 regions. These regions are significantly different in terms of economics, demographics and fire problems. The 140 fire stations serve as districts within those regions, and each has a district chief fire officer in charge.
The cities are densely populated, urbanized centers where traffic congestion places significant demands on the ability to move fire apparatus. The department has established a response-time goal of 10 minutes to calls for service in the urban area but does not have a goal in the rural areas.
Most buildings are made of concrete block. The primary problem from a structural perspective is therefore contents, not structure. Yet, when a structure fire does occur, exposures are a problem.
Poor road development hinders access to rural areas. A significant part of the country faces a relatively serious wildland fire threat. In fact, the urban-wildland problem is among the country's most serious risk issues.
The country's 140 fire stations may seem like an adequate number. However, the distribution and concentration of the fire resources is of constant concern. For example, Accra, which has 2.5 million to 3 million people, has 11 fire stations. The fire service staff says they should have a minimum of 25 in the area. Moreover, as many as 85 of the 140 fire stations lack any operational fire-suppression equipment.
The staffing level of a fire company in Ghana also might seem very high. A department places a minimum of seven personnel on duty at each fire station for each appliance. The firefighters work a 10- and 14-hour shift as opposed to a 24-hour shift. A firefighter in Ghana earns roughly the equivalent of $100 per month.
The fire service has a nationalized training program with a coastal training site near Accra. This site is patterned after the Morton-in-the-Marsh in the United Kingdom and serves as a basic training and fundamental officer training facility. A petroleum company donated the facility. The facility also includes dormitories for about 100 students, with separate quarters for officers and other personnel. There are plans to replace that facility with another one that would be located farther inland to eliminate the deteriorating effect the salt air has on the apparatus and equipment. But that project is on hold due to funding issues. In 2006, the department was hit with a 5% budget reduction that severely hampered its efforts to make improvements.
There are two other forms of fire protection delivery in Ghana that are related but not directly linked to the national fire service. The first of these is the airport. Ghana's Civil Aviation Administration maintains a crash crew at that facility. The administration recently purchased two new Carmichael pumpers and have a very-well-equipped Vetter airbag system for lifting in the event of collapse either on or off the runway. In fact, while I was there a large cargo aircraft tipped over, requiring the use of these devices.
The second area of fire protection is in the harbor. The main port is located in Tema and has a separately funded fire brigade that primarily deals with marina, ports and container shipping.
The nation's hazmat problem is more or less limited to its industrial regions. The county has one petroleum refinery and does not use a nationwide placard system. There is widespread use of liquefied petroleum gas, which is true even in the urban areas.
Ghana's fire service recently added a road traffic accident rapid-response unit. The British fire service sent several instructors to Ghana to conduct training programs and Ghana is using donated equipment that is scattered throughout the country.
In the major cities there are also high-rise buildings. In Accra I observed more than two dozen buildings that would fit the definition by our current standards. There are only two aerial apparatus in Ghana. One is in Accra, and it is out of service. The other is in Kumasi.
A major development in Ghana is a new shopping center in Accra that will be on the same scale as modern malls in other countries. Located on the Tetteh Quarshie traffic circle, the project is being designed by a South Africa company and will be fully sprinklered. The mall is in excess of 161,000 square feet.
Although Ghana does not experience a tremendous number of fire calls in relationship to its population, Ferkah says that the losses in the agricultural area associated with wildland fires equals 3% of the gross national product. This places a high priority on developing wildland firefighting capability. However, this is offset by the limited revenue to provide staffing and equipment in some of these wildland regions.
The wildland fire risk is among the more serious threats to the county. There is a national law that provides for some ground rules for dealing with the problem. A national wildfire management policy was adopted in 1994, but the problem of bush fires remains serious. Statistics from official reports indicate that annual losses from commercial timber are around $24 million, with a total loss of agricultural products and other accumulative losses exceeding $210 million.
The fire service is doing it's very best to maintain an organizational capacity against some rather severe economic constraints. Similar to other countries with emerging economies, fire protection is not always a top funding priority. Ferkah's strategic plan for the department depends greatly on the support of other parties. Yet, it relies on the department's members to find solutions to the very complex problems they face.
African fire agencies do not have a strong network for sharing information and ideas. This may be a function of their different backgrounds from colonial governments.
Ghana's fire service still needs many of the basic types of equipment and resources that Westerners take for granted. The department's personal protective equipment is substandard. There is a pressing need for rolling stock in the rural areas.
They also need additional training and education materials. The fire academy is working to develop a broad range of training programs in the fields of incident command and fire cause investigation. And they are actively seeking information on the urban-wildland interface.
Like every fire agency, the Ghana National Fire Service is seeking ways to improve its value to the community. One cannot help but admire the efforts of the leaders of this department as they face overwhelming obstacles of funding and resource development.
With more than 40 years in the fire service, Ronny J. Coleman has served as fire chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, Calif., and was the fire marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in vocational education.