I was taken aback, just like many other people, I presume, by the frequency of fire outbreaks this month (May). A row of four shops in Kigali’s commercial heart- Quartier Matheus, a school in Burera District, Northern Province the next day, mattress and maize milling factories the following two days- leaving millions of francs worth of destruction and several unanswered questions.
As I mulled over this whole thing, a deadly fire tore through a shoe factory in Valenzuela suburb of Manila, the Philippines, leaving 72 dead by the latest count. I realised how lucky we have been in this country. Our fires, beside the one in Rubavu prison that claimed five lives last year, most others have had the hand of God upon them- they strike when the factory workers have gone out for lunch, school dormitories burn when students are out or in class, or some workplace burns at night when staff have gone home. We have been several times lucky.
Still the safety situation in the Manila factory got me thinking- windows blocked with metal bars, welding works near chemicals, no fire safety training for workers, no designated escape routes or fire exit direction, no fire drills, no fire safety officers in charge, in short, “dangerous conditions for the factory workers” as described by one Labour Union leader. One survivor explained “we were running not knowing where to go. If people had known what to do, it would have been different.”
The purpose of a fire safety awareness training for staff, is mainly threefold- learn fire prevention measures, what to do in case a fire breaks out, and how/when to use basic fire fighting equipment or call the Fire Brigade to do the fire fighting.
The situation in the Manila factory should get us all thinking about and questioning the safety status of our own factories, schools, shopping malls and other public places. Since I started engaging with the issue of fire safety in Rwanda, I have never ceased wondering whether we are learning lessons fast enough, to catch up with the increasing fire safety challenges borne out of our rapidly developing infrastructure.
Yes, fire safety rules and regulations have been enacted. Whereas the Prime Minister’s instructions of 11/07/2014 relating to fire prevention in Rwanda; the Rwanda Standards Board’s National Fire Safety Standards (RS186) of November 2013, as well as other public safety rules enshrined in the labour code and building codes, all seek to regulate fire safety in our buildings. The question is who knows about them, and are they strictly enforced? If a public safety inspector (assuming such an officer exists) walks randomly into any of our high profile institutions and asks for a copy of any of these regulations, few would even have heard about them.
Yes, the response capability of the Police has been boosted, from two fire fighting trucks in 2007/8 to 12 currently, covering Kigali City and all four provinces of Rwanda. But until we have a holistic approach, bringing all fire safety management elements together- fire prevention, public awareness, strict enforcement of fire safety rules in our built infrastructure, installation of basic fire fighting equipment, fire safety training of all staff in the workplace, et cetera- the Police will continue to tackle fire outbreaks that would have been avoided.
As Rwanda looks up to Singapore’s development model, we should emulate their public safety practice too, where any breach of fire safety rules is not tolerated. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) conducts regular fire safety enforcement checks, handing out fines up to $5,000 for first offenders; up to $10,000, a six month jail term or both for repeated offenders, on conviction. The SCDF has a fire-hazard reporting free-line, and any member of public can call and report a fire hazard spotted anywhere. In 2014 alone, SCDF conducted 13,903 of such checks, 30% of them reported by members of public, resulting in issuance of 30,069 notices of fire safety breach.
It’s about safeguarding our lives and our belongings; no one should complain if the law comes down hard on us.
The author is a fire safety management and training consultant.