I Almost left the Altar on My Wedding Day -Engr Agbili

By Mercy Hill

Among all the different motivations for which great men push hard for greater achievements is their love for humanity. Men have reigned around the world, who rose to fame for advancing the cause of humanity. Such men are hardly forgotten by generations after, for their contributions to humanity.

If there are a group of people that deserve our respect, honour and kind rememberance by generations yet unborn, then our fire fighting heroes are one. Consider the varying degrees of sacrifices they make, their lives they put on the line while taking abnormal risks to make our lives normal. The risky nature of their job puts them at risk everytime but they are never discouraged.

Today, we bring you one man who has fought countless fires, taken many risks and narrowly escaped death many times in the course of discharging his duties. And he said, he takes joy in doing his job, because it is for the good of humanity.

Meet Engr Martin Agbili, the Chief FireOfficer of Anambra State.
Can We Meet you formally?
My name is Engr. Martin Onyedikachukwu Agbili. I am the Director and Chief Fire Officer, Anambra State Fire Service and also the Chairman, Nigerian Society of Engineers, Awka Branch.

What inspired your journey into the fire service?

Sincerely, it is a very long story. The journey did not start today. I remember when I was still in primary and secondary school, back then when we lived at Enugu, there was always fire outbreaks beside our house. I loved watching the fire fighting scenes then. Whenever fire broke out, the fire fighters would arrive with their sirens and one particular man would jump down from the fire truck to fight the fire. I fell in love with that man, not knowing that I would join the fire service in later years.

Years later, after my secondary and tertiary education, it happened that the same man became the Director to Fire Service in Anambra State, after the creation of states. I was very friendly with his son who was my classmate in secondary school. So it was the man who brought me into fire service, though he is late now. He asked if I wanted to join the fire service and I told him yes, even though I did not know much about fire fighting, aside my love for watching fire fighters, and that was how my journey as a fire fighter started. Since then, I have been fighting fires and I have never regretted joining the fire service.

One who listens to your story would think that life has been rosy for you. Would you tell us a little bit about your background and your childhood, how was your growing up like?
Well, I am from Ogbunka, in Orumba South LGA, Anambra State. My parents were civil servants before they retired. We lived in Enugu (former Anambra State). I am both the first son and the first child of the family. I had my primary and some part of my secondary education in Enugu before we relocated down to Anambra State, after the creation of states.

I entered Igwebuike Grammar School Awka to finish up my secondary school education. While at Igwebuike, I was the sanitary prefect, while my friend, whose father brought me into fire service, was the disciplinary prefect. And we loved working together.

My dad, a retired boxer and karate master, trained us in a very special way to be strong. I remember when schools went on a long strike during the administration of His Excellency Chinweoke Mbadinuju, we had to do a lot of hustles out of hardship. I was very good in Mathematics, so I opened a lesson centre where I did Maths tutorials. Whatever we earned then, we saved for the future, to enable us finish our secondary school education. Painfully, I lost my Dad that period. Life was not easy then at all, not that it is easy now, but we are better off.

Could you take us through your journey as a fire fighter? How has it been so far?
Actually, I joined the fire service in 1997 as a recruit. So I literally started from the scratch. I grew through the rank and files to get to this particular position.

There is one particular incident which I don’t forget so easily. It happened on July 3, 2000. I was barely 3 years old in the service then. I took the highest risk ever in my fire fighting career. I went into a pit toilet to rescue a baby. That was the highest risk I have taken in my fire fighting life. As God may have it, I survived it. I succeeded in rescuing the baby with the help of other fire fighters. Unfortunately, the baby died. Our job is to rescue whether dead or alive.

As time went on, while I was in school studying Biochemistry, I met a lady who told me it was better I studied Engineering. I took her advice, backed out from Biochemistry and went into Engineering. I had earlier wanted to study Medicine but after 5 failed admission attempts, I gave up and took up Biochemistry before I met this lady. She gave me a letter and instructed me not to read it till after my graduation.

The day I opened the letter after my graduation, what was written inside was that only someone who read Engineering could head the Fire Service. I read Electrical/Electronics, so it motivated me not to leave the fire service. I tried my possible best to gather all the skills, knowledge and tools I needed to excel in the Fire Service.

I remember my salary then was just N1,000, but my school fees in Engineering school was N5,500. I was not easy but I kept pushing on and by God’s grace, I pulled through. I saved some part of my meagre salary which I spent on online courses and international certification exams. I focused most of my research on international fire fighters, how they lived, the fire fighting tactics they used etc. I was desperately hungry for success. I wanted to be like them. I started connecting with them online and their guidance, trainings, tips and advice helped me a lot to pass my certification exams and succeed as a fire fighter.

At a time, I had to do a two-year course abroad just to nurture and improve myself more. For many years in the fire service I did not have any savings, but I am glad with the certifications and trainings I accumulated. The whole stress and sacrifices told on me then, but I was happy doing the job, with encouragements from friends, family etc.

One very clear fact is that I loved the fire service. Back then in school, sometimes I would leave the lecture hall, at the sound of our siren, to go and fight fire. I studied at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Even though I was the class rep, I would always run out of the class to go and fight fire. They knew me with that. That was how I kept going and growing in this service.

In 2017, I took over the mantle of leadership as the Chief Fire Officer in Anambra State. It has not been easy, even now, because you will be restless most of the time, ready for an emergency. I am the kind of person that likes working with other fire fighters, irrespective of my position. People keep telling me that I have gotten to a position where I need to rest, but I believe, as a leader, I should lead by example, so people under me can learn. That is why whenever I hear about any fire outbreak, I move with the fire fighters to the scene. Most times I go to the extreme to fight the fire.

People keep telling me to slow down now. Others compare me with other chief fire officers in other states, that I should rest and stop fighting fire. The truth is that I love fighting fire and I can proudly tell you that I am the only chief fire officer, across the whole world, who still fights fire. You can make your enquiries. And one thing that pushes me to fire fighting scenes, aside my love for the vocation, is the fact that it is a humanitarian job. Whenever you are fighting fire, you are helping people who are in most need of your help at that point in time. You are the God they see at that point in time, that is why we always try to respond whenever we are called upon.

So we are doing our best in Anambra State. As far as Anambra Fire Service is concerned, His Excellency Willie Obiano, the Governor of Anambra State has done a lot and we can proudly say we are the Number 1 fire agency in the whole of South East. We are also ranking high in Nigeria. We are not into a competition with anybody, but we still strive to become the best, because being the best simply means we are giving the best to the public.

Considering how tasking your job is, how do you blend work and family responsibilities?
Sincerely, fire fighting has eaten deep into me. I say this because in 2010, I got married. You would not believe that I nearly left my wife on our wedding day to go and fight fire. I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, but I remember my wife grabbing my hands when I was about leaving, and that brought me back to ‘my senses’. I so much love fire fighting, that is why I said it has eaten deep into me.

I was already a fire fighter when I married my lovely wife and again, fire fighting has become a part of her too. Most times, she would be the one to wake me up in the midnight, saying “the emergency line is ringing, they need your assistance”. For example during the dry season when we had incessant fire outbreaks, I would always come home tired and worn out from work. In the dead of the night, I would be fast asleep trying to regain some strength, the emergency line would ring, and she would be the one to pick the call and inform me that my help is needed somewhere, most times around 1am at night. I could be called upon any time of the day or night.

My wife perfectly understands, she doesn’t get disturbed by my work schedule. If she had the opportunity, she would join in the fire fighting.
Of course, it is not easy for the family. But my wife being an understanding woman, makes it easy for me to keep pushing on. If she was not the understanding type, I would not have gotten to this stage in life. I sincerely appreciate her supportive nature which has been assisting me to excel.