FIRE security correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett is currently visiting West Africa to look at the dynamic nature of the security landscape in the region. Here he reports on a surprising discovery in a remote township in Gambia:
The Atlantic Road on the outskirts of the capital city of Gambia is well named. It tracks the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean providing brief but panoramic views of the rollers crashing in against the beaches. Looking out across the water colourful, but spindly, fishing boats that look barely seaworthy look very vulnerable against the backdrop of the huge Atlantic waves. Sometimes these boats carry six to eight people. They can remain at sea four hours on end looking for their prey.
As they make their way out to fish they can briefly disappear from sight only to emerge as another wave top drags them from the seeming abyss into which they must have fallen. Here fishermen eek a life out against a constant backdrop of danger.
In the Gambia life can be hard for the fishermen. They have to fish every day. This is the only way they can make any sort of a living. When the sea gets rough they have little option but to venture out into the waves. Amongst the larger vessels smaller boats also take to the sea manned with a single man and powered by a tiny outboard motor. These guys know how to live life on the edge.
Stopping off in one of the fishing villages along the short Gambian coastline an unexpected sight greets the unsuspecting traveller. There amongst the fishing boats are the Gambian Fire and Rescue Service. They are the ones asked to rescue the fishermen if they get into difficulties. The fishermen summon help using the extensive mobile phone network that operates in the area. Everyone has the same simple mobile phone. If the calls comes the Gambian Fire and Rescue Team is mobilised.
Suddenly, steeping out of the blue, wearing a uniform that would easily blend into any fire station in the United Kingdom stands Mr Gibril Nying. He is the Divisional Fire Officer with over 30 years of experience in the service. His uniform sharply ironed and beautifully turned out gives one hint of its age, the badge says Avon Fire Service.
Speaking to Mr Nying he is immensely proud of the work his small force carries out along the coast. I ask the question as to how many lives of fishermen have been saved by his team. "Ah" he replies carefully "the statistics" he ruminates for a second and declares that in the last two years their team has mobilised 56 times to save the lives of fishermen. Dropping his voice noticeably as if saddened to say it he adds "six people have not been saved".
An invitation inside the station on the beach is like a journey into any coastguard station the world over. On one board the status of all the vessels he has is displayed. Underneath that is the rota for those on duty. A small room to the side contains life jackets donated from the United Kingdom along with other paraphernalia. Outside stands proudly their Rubber Inflatable Boat, donated by the Dutch. Two other smaller rescue craft sit alongside. The RIB is their fast boat, powered by a 95 horsepower engine. That can help them reach out over 20 to 30 km from their base. For inshore work they use the two smaller boats.
The fireman on duty all wear tee shirts provided by the Avon Fire Service. They talk excitedly about the equipment they have been given. On a white board on another wall a scenario has been played out. It involves the capsizing of the ferry that runs from Banjul to Senegal. Such disasters do happen. The ferries are often heavily loaded with people and goods. How this small team would deal with such a disaster one pauses to wonder. Saving the lives of a few fishermen is one thing. If a ferry were to capsize that is a massively different problem.
Despite their difficulties the men on the watch are all cheerful. They appreciate the visit, albeit unplanned. They exhibit the kind of attitude that binds people of the Fire and Rescue Service the world over; a keenness to save lives and do a professional job. With some hearty handshakes all round I quickly leave them to return to their task in hand. It was really nice to meet them. As I head off down the road another unexpected sight comes into view. Two fire tenders, polished and ready for action. That fire station could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Gambian Fire and Rescue Services, like their colleagues all over the world, are ready for action if the call comes.
One can only hope that their preparations for a ferry disaster are simply roll play. But on a dark and windy night when the Atlantic rollers are even less forgiving than usual these men may well have to respond to what in their world would be a massive challenge. It is a scenario that I hope that does not cross the rubric from fiction into fact.