[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
All hands to the pump
Green to Red

By Dan Bell
BBC News

They were designed to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear strike, and came to be seen as hopelessly outdated. But now the Green Goddess fire engines have found a new mission - on the streets of Lagos and other African cities.

"When there is a fire, and you call the firemen, sometimes they don't respond; sometimes they close their offices and run away because they don't have any remedy to the situation, they don't have anything to offer."

This, according to Aloysius Ogabido, a fire officer from Lagos, is the bleak reality of fire fighting across much of Nigeria.

"When you call [the fire service] on the phone," he says, "they will tell you they are human beings, they don't have anything to fight the fire, they don't want their families to lose them."

The Green Goddesses have gone a long way to save lives and property
Aloysius Ogabido
With no working fire engines and wearing nothing more protective than cotton overalls, fire cover in many parts of Africa often comes down to stopping a passing pick-up, driving to the scene, borrowing a ladder, and handing buckets down a line.

If you were asked to walk into a burning building with nothing but the shirt on your back and a bucket of water, what would you do?

But now, at least in Lagos in Nigeria and a handful of other African cities, help is at hand.

Best known for providing temporary cover during the UK firefighters' strikes of 1977 and 2003, the Green Goddess was originally designed to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. Yet only now are they finding a permanent role.

In 2005, after waiting for 50 years for an emergency that never came, the UK's 1,000-strong fleet of Green Goddesses was stood down. The engines were passed to a specialist dealership in Lincolnshire, where they have been gradually sold off.

Hammer and pliers

With the help of a fire consultant from Slough, Berkshire, many have gone to developing countries. This year, about 60 were sent to Lagos where they have become virtually the only fire cover for a population of 15 million.

Green Goddess

Richard Coates, a former BP fire adviser, who had already supervised the sale of 300 engines to Azerbaijan, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Nigeria, went with the Nigeria shipment to help train the local firefighters.

Green Goddesses, he says, are ideally suited to the work. They can be fixed with a hammer and a pair of pliers, and unlike modern fire engines, have four-wheel drive.

"The goddesses are designed for this," says Mr Coates. "They are designed to work when everything else is broken down and all your infrastructure has gone. They are a stand-alone unit.

"You don't need anything technical, you don't get any electronics in there that are going to malfunction. As long as you have a basic knowledge of engines you can fix it."

He stayed on to train local firefighters who are not only lacking equipment, but also dealing with entrenched poverty and the effects of Aids. Sometimes, he says, he had to feed the new recruits.

Township blazes

"We couldn't even start in Zambia. It was so bad, the fire station, the conditions. We had to go out and get food and make sure they had one solid meal a day. They didn't have that."

A refurbished Green Goddess

Faced with these conditions it isn't surprising that sometimes firefighters - who in Lagos are paid 100 a month - prefer not to risk their lives, and stay away.

When they do attend an emergency, they can become the target of violent attacks from those who are forced to watch their homes and livelihoods burn.

"As a fireman, you feel desperately sorry for them. You feel you've got to do something," he says, explaining his motivation for the project. "It's not their fault because they haven't got any equipment."

Ironically it is often the firefighters' own communities they are unable to save.

"It's the townships that are burning down. You don't hear about it in the news, but they have fairly regular major fires in the townships that just sweep through," says Mr Coates. "Because they live in the place that's burning down, it's them, it's their families that are going to suffer."

Mr Ogabido says he has often witnessed people standing in front of their burning homes, with a hand-held fire extinguisher.

Properly known as a Bedford SHZ Self-Propelled Pump
Selling second-hand for 1,750 and 2,500 each
Only 40-50 still left for sale

But in Lagos at least, according to the director of Lagos State Fire & Safety Services, Olatunji Afoke, the goddesses have drastically cut response times.

Before the fleet arrived, Lagos' population was served by just 11 working fire engines, he says. By next year, he hopes there will be jobs for an extra 800 firefighters, and he says other states throughout Nigeria are now looking to Lagos as a model.

But sadly Nigeria may be one of the last countries that will benefit from the stalwart machines. While Mr Coates is planning to travel with another shipment of engines to Zambia this month, the number of Green Goddesses for sale is rapidly dwindling.

Witham Specialist Vehicles, which sells them on behalf of the MoD, says there are no more than 40 or 50 left.

"The Green Goddesses have gone a long way to save lives and property," says Mr Ogabido. "Since March this year, all the fire incidents in Lagos were averted."

The attacks on firefighters have also stopped.

When the goddesses arrived at one recent fire, remembers Mr Ogabido, the local people started singing in celebration.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Thats a lovely article...its nice to see these vehicles reconditioned and usefully deployed.I remember them from the UK firemens strike in 79. It does make me think about the inability of Nigeria to set up such a proper emergency service without foreign aid...Billions pour into that country as oil revenues and presumably the same billions pour into Swiss bank accounts of the corrupt politicians there.
Lee Brown, Thornhill,UK

I joined the RAF in March 1977 (at 21) and just after my 6 month initial training at RAF Cosford, I was detached from RAF Wyton to the TA Centre on the Lower Bristol Road in Bath for nearly 10 weeks as a 'firefighter'. It was was an incredible and yet humbling experience and one that I will never forget - especially when I think of the lives that were saved after a 7 car pile-up on the M4 where every vehicle was ablaze!
Geoff Banks, Aberdeen, Scotland

I find it strange that the UK is standing down equipment that would still work, when everything else has failed, without replacing it. Are we now saying that the UK will never face a major catastrophe? I must have missed the declaration of world peace, and the general disarming of all nuclear stocks around the world. Phew, its good news to know that we can all sleep at night.
Andy Kelly, Thornton-Cleveleys

Wonderful reporting on how world citizens are being of service to each other and their countries and getting 'greener' with recycling in a big way.
Vangie, Chesterfield, MO, USA

What will the British army use when the fire service next go on strike?
chris, St Alban's

"They are designed to work when everything else is broken down and all your infrastructure has gone. They are a stand-alone unit. "You don't need anything technical, you don't get any electronics in there that are going to malfunction. As long as you have a basic knowledge of engines you can fix it." Is it just me, or is this not exactly the sort of vehicle we should be sticking with? As we get closer and closer to a fuel crisis, are we not going to need technology that is rugged, reliable, and easily fixed?
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

Nigeria, one of the main oil prodecers in the world need our old fire engines why?
Alan Payne, Dundee, Scotland

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific