Fire outbreaks on the increase again?

There appears to be a spike in fire outbreaks, which is normally the case in the hot season. After a lull in fire incidents last year and first half of this year, there has been at least between five and 10 fire outbreaks monthly in Kigali alone since the hot season begun; only that many of them escape media’s attention.

There appears to be a spike in fire outbreaks, which is normally the case in the hot season. After a lull in fire incidents last year and first half of this year, there has been at least between five and 10 fire outbreaks monthly in Kigali alone since the hot season begun; only that many of them escape media’s attention.

It’s when it strikes at the heart of the city or a prominent place like the one in June at Chez Lando, and a supermarket nearby Kisementi, that media headlines scream ‘fire’! There has also been some fire fatalities this season, in some Kigali neighbourhoods.

 

The reason for a spike up in fire incidents is that any small spark that would cause no harm in the wet season, can lead to a fire outbreak due to the heat already in the atmosphere. This is not only in Rwanda, but every country has got its own ‘fire season’. 

 

Rwanda Today (The East African of April 30-May 6, 2016) carried a lead story about building safety in Rwanda, entitled ‘Buildings all over but not enough firefighting equipment; awareness’

 

As I read the article, a CNN headline was so instructive on how dangerous fire can be, even in well planned and developed systems. “88,000 people flee as fire swallows Canadian City” screamed the headline. Please mark the word “swallows” and that is exactly what fire is capable of,-- swallowing an entire city or neighbourhood! There is a Kinyarwanda saying that “ntawe utinya ishyamba, atinya icyo barihuriyemo” (no one is afraid of a forest per say, but what he may have encountered therein). My fears are borne of what I have witnessed over the years working in this sector. Fire doesn’t fear or respect any structure, not even vessels moving on water, or planes in the sky. That’s why prevention and preparedness are very important. 

The Rwanda Today story painted a pretty dire and disturbing fire safety scenario not only in Kigali but across the country. It is a situation that we in the industry have been aware of, and have been fighting what seems like protracted battle to bring it to the attention of government leaders and captains of industry in this country. Planning development without embedding in very stringent, enforceable safety measures is very dangerous. Quite a number of people in this country can attest to this, after losing their life investments to fire outbreaks.

Fire outbreaks in Rwanda are exacerbated by people’s carelessness and lack of awareness. Wherever we try to lay the blame, the human element lurks in the background.

Take the example of the fire that gutted a supermarket next to Civitas hotel at Kisementi on June 6, 2016, just a few days after the Chez Lando fire. Five big fridges were found plugged and pulling power from one socket! Quite a dangerous doing by humans, then we lay the blame on electricity, or EWSA-EUCL-REG!

I have decided therefore to dedicate this writing to giving out free guidance to landlords, managing agents and property owners on best practice and legal responsibilities under the existing fire safety regulatory framework in Rwanda.

Fire safety or fire protection must always be considered against the potential risks posed by different types of buildings and their uses. For example, a commercial property, a building housing a hospital, a school full of children, a fuel depot, a market or a shopping mall comprising of multiple businesses and thousands of people in and out, or a factory making mattresses or paint, a building comprising of purpose-built flats – they each present different fire risk to residents and other users than one which has a mixture of commercial and residential lettings.

Therefore, fire safety measures are not and should not be a one-size-fit-all, as many people tend to think. Even fire extinguishing media are as broad as the risks highlighted above, and respond to different fire classifications.

By law a fire risk assessment or audit must be done by a qualified person to isolate those risks and provide an appropriate fire safety plan (roadmap) for each building structure. This must be repeated every three years to capture any structural changes; change in usage or occupancy etc. 

The law (Prime Minister’s Instructions of July 2014, and related building safety regulations thereof) also requires ‘any public building or other public places’ to have a fire alarm system with an alarm bell on each floor; smoke detectors and sprinklers on each floor; a fire extinguisher at every 50 meters on each floor and a hose reel on each floor. These items serve what we call prevention, detection, protection and response functions.

Other fire risk management facilities required by law include emergency exit staircases and an evacuation plan; fire exit signs indicating the direction of possible evacuation; assembly sign and assembly area in case of evacuation and fire/water hydrant to supply water to the fire fighters when they are called in; fire insurance cover etc.

I do not intend to reproduce the entire law here, but just know if you own or manage a building and you have not bothered to acquaint yourself with rules and regulations governing property safety in this country, you are probably not only in breach of the very laws that are there to protect your building, but you are also endangering the lives of those using it, as well as your own.

I understand these rules and requirements may seem daunting to an ordinary property owner or manager; and your job as a manager is not to know or do everything but to manage and plan for everything to be done. I can see residential house owners chest-thumping that this doesn’t concern them. Wrong; the law also looks at you (itegeko nawe rirakureba), under fire prevention in residential facilities.

But before the law enforcers come in to crack the whip, just have mercy for your own life, your loved ones and your property. Check fire safety standards in your property and seek advice on how you can safeguard yourself against fire accidents. As the mantra goes ‘fire kills, destroys, but it can be prevented.”

The writer, a former fire safety officer in the British Fire & Rescue Service based in London, is currently a fire risk management and training consultant based in Kigali

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