Tuesday, April 6, 2010

We are ill prepared for fires

Just today, April 6, 2010 at around 12.30pm; premises belonging to the Bajjabaira family caught fire. People tried to put out the fire, but it was spreading very fast and the plastic chairs made matters worse. By the time the Fire brigade got to site, it was really late.

We need a better fire strategy in Uganda. At least each police station should have some fire fighting equipment. Given the jams on the way, you can least expect to save anything when a fire fighting vehicle has to move so many miles before getting to the scene of the fire.

May be those contesting for power in the forthcoming elections may have another point to emphasize.
William Kituuka

Written by Eric Naigambi
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 16:16
Fire outbreaks have gained significant notoriety as potential hazards to life and property of people in Uganda. While the Budo fire remains the worst in terms of human cost for the bereaved and injury and trauma for the survivors, the Owino Market incident exposes the worst gap. The disaster in Owino was mild because it struck at a time when there was the least human activity. Whereas each fire has had its peculiarities in terms of cause, victims, time of occurrence, and extent of damage, the most alarming similarity is that irrespective of the time and place of a fire outbreak, it rages to its full potential uninterrupted. No matter whether these wild fires owe their origin to innocent accidents or maliciously calculated and targeted moves by terrorists, we ought to focus our attention at the gap in our readiness and capacity to prevent or manage them.

Crisis management is about readying ourselves all the time to respond with a superior move to unforeseen provocations. Luganda has the best template of the basic rule of thumb for those in the business of managing crises: “akajja omanyi kanyaga bitono” which, put simply, means you can only manage what you expect. By this rule an effective counter-fire-policy should as a basic requirement depict round the clock readiness for a wild fire outbreak at any point in the community. Besides, counter-fire services must exhibit that in their design and response.

Yet going by what we have seen and experienced, routinely emergency services only manage to reach the scene between five to seven hours after the incident; a time in which there is probably no doubt about the fate of the victims, or extent of the damage. In a televised defence after the Owino fire, the authorities blamed the inadequate response on alterations in the distribution of water outlets in the city. Whenever the crisis strikes, they said, the fire engines find the water hydrants sealed off, leaving Lake Victoria as the nearest refilling point! If this is true then this explanation unreservedly serves to expose at least complacence but at worst, an accentuated measure of incompetence and negligence in its extremes.

This is treachery! It is expected of fire departments to conduct well designed mock exercises with sufficient reach and frequency for vulnerable groups to learn. They must also educate people about fire-risk-behaviour and encourage them to adopt fire-protective-practices as well. These drills serve to expose and test the readiness of the community and fire personnel to actual situations on the ground so they can develop templates for the real disaster when it happens. It is from the cumulative knowledge gathered from such drills that the community and emergency services are expected to regularly update their design for approaching real life disasters when they occur.

A study by the Injury Control Center revealed that more than 80% of the people do not know how to use fire extinguishers! It is treacherous that our emergency services are not doing enough in that area. Moreover, even if the water agencies had sought to close these crucial outlets, as alleged, the anomaly would have been detected during a mock exercise. It is equally treacherous that there is no coordination between the two public agencies handling such basic services. Rather than complement each other in a joint mock exercise expected of partners in a mature and civilized community, one party chose to ignite a barrage of accusations through the media, a move that left the victims and the vulnerable amazed.

The verbal attack notwithstanding, we also wish to see a fire engine rushing to put out the next fire being hotly pursued by a water tanker from the water department in a rare show of “patriotism” because only then shall our fire safety be guaranteed.

The author is a former Police officer and now an independent researcher

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