Time for Rwanda to have a fire management authority – expert

For the past two months or so, Rwanda has had about 10 major fire outbreaks raising concerns over the country’s preparedness and ability to manage the infernos. The New Times’ Collins Mwai interviewed Ignatius Mugabo, the managing director of Mugolds International, a firm that specialises in fire and risk management. 
Police firefighters struggle to put out a fire. File.
Police firefighters struggle to put out a fire. File.

For the past two months or so, Rwanda has had about 10 major fire outbreaks raising concerns over the country’s preparedness and ability to manage the infernos. An investigation has been launched comprising officials from different agencies to establish the cause of these fires. The New Times’ Collins Mwai interviewed Ignatius Mugabo, the managing director of Mugolds International, a firm that specialises in fire and risk management. Mugabo has over seven years experience working in the fire management department in the United Kingdom.

What observations can be made from the recent fire outbreaks and the way they have been managed?

Amongst the observations to be made in light of the recent fire outbreaks is that there is minimal or no public awareness on fire-related issues, there is lack of a proper fire protection system and probably poor installations of electrical systems.

Public awareness also seems to be lacking. Most of the buildings in the city have no fire management equipment and majority of those that have only use them to fool inspectors, they are faulty.

It is clear that as the country is developing at a fast rate, there is need to revise our fire safety preparedness, to protect the investments as now there are more activities that are vulnerable.

Fire management is a product of few factors; how fast the fire was detected, when it was reported, how fast the fire fighters were able to get at the scene without obstruction and how fast they put it out.

Another issue that emerged during the recent fire outbreaks in the country is the need to decentralise fire safety management offices. For instance if you have a fire at a scene outside town, it has proved to be a challenge for the authorities to get there on time and also refill water trucks. We can handle this by seeing to it that fire management authorities are at district level.

Fire safety management is a component of proper public private partnership. Local governments and the private sector should have an active role in fire management.

The police may have their share of the blame but the rest of the public should look at areas where they fall short.

Going by the recent fires, there is also need for crowd control. Members of the public in some instances have been blocking the police from doing their job as they rush and crowd around the scene. In the event of an explosion say due to gas canisters, their lives would be at risk.

What element has proved to be lacking going by the recent fire outbreaks?

When we talk about fire, there are four elements in fire safety management; there is prevention, protection, detection and response.

Prevention is the most important of them all.  The reasons as to why fire outbreaks have been a little bit hard to deal with is that all the agencies involved have their core businesses and fire management is only a small scope in their duties.

An example is police, their core business being law and order, fire fighting only comes in when protecting lives and people’s property. That leaves the prevention aspect with few authorities to address it.

Fire safety management involves putting all the measures in place to prevent or reduce instances of fire outbreaks. Fire fighting is the failure of the proper implementation of prevention and protection.

Speaking of buildings, how well are city buildings equipped to manage infernos?

Most of the buildings in the city would be death traps in the event of a fire outbreak. This cuts across, private business complexes, government offices among other buildings.  Most of these buildings host a lot of offices and have lots of people working in them but lack basic equipment to be used in the event of a fire outbreak.

Strangely, many people are reluctant to take on fire protection measures. They view it as an added cost and not a protection of investment.

People, therefore, end up putting up massive structures without fire management systems. That should be one of the items on the inspector’s checklist.

Installing them after the completion of the building makes it  more expensive and to some extent less efficient compared to when they are installed during construction.

What impact would the infernos have on the country’s ranking as a business hub?

Time has come when we look at the different elements and components of security. Our background dictates that matters related to security are serious; it is time we looked at fire management as a serious security concern.

When investors are assessing how ideal a place is for investment, they also look at fire management. If we keep falling short in terms of fire and disaster management, we risk scaring away potential investors.

The police have received a fair share of the blame on how they have been handling the fires. What’s your take on the issue?

It would not be fair to blame the police entirely for the failures in the fire response mechanism. Even members of the public share the blame because they have not been so swift when it comes to alerting the police about fire outbreaks. We have had incidences where a fire burns for about half an hour before the police are notified.

By the time they get there not much can be done, it is only crisis management. We also have instances where drivers do not give way to fire fighting trucks.

That is where public awareness comes in. In most countries, they conduct awareness campaigns in areas that are vulnerable to fire outbreaks so that members of the public know what to do in the event of a fire.

What do you make of the new instructions on fire management?

The instruction are actually long overdue. They should have been put in place long ago. They probably could have helped manage the fires that the country has been experiencing. Personally I feel that a six-month deadline is a long one. So much can take place during this period.

The hard part might be in ensuring compliance. However, caution should be observed when attempting to adhere to the instruction. A building owner needs to conduct an assessment of the needs of a building. Some people may end up in a rush, buying fire management systems that may end up not having an impact on their buildings.

It is through an assessment that you can find out exactly what a specific building requires to have in place.

Talk that that will be an added cost is not true, the amount spent should be if anything seen as an investment.

It will lower the amounts paid against fire insurance since you can argue it out with an insurer that you have managed to reduce the chances of the occurrence of the peril and deserve to pay lower premiums.

That aside, safety of employees and workers should also be a priority and should not be looked at cost wise.

There has been talk of the need of a fire safety authority that would oversee fire safety management. Do you think it is necessary?

We need a fire safety authority whose core mandate will be to look into and intervene in fire related incidents. They should be in charge of the fire brigade and all fire safety management elements. That would cut out all the bureaucracy and blame game on who is responsible for what.

The authority should have a comprehensive fire safety mandate, including policy formulation and prosecution of those who do not comply.

A fire safety authority’s role should span beyond putting out fires, they could be in charge of conducting awareness campaigns, conducting regular inspections and bringing together the various stakeholders to have maximum impact.

They would formulate policies and standards for various parts of the country based on the findings of their assessment.

Currently, the police and other authorities who have been involved in fire management do not have the time and capacity to do all that, it is not their core business.  The situation from where we stand calls for a fully fledged fiery safety management Authority.

Are there opportunities for private investors in fire safety management?

There are numerous opportunities for investors who might want to invest in fire safety management. In some countries, private entities play a huge role in the area. Now that the public has seen the necessity, there might be demand for their services.

It is time they came in thorough areas like capacity building, assessment amongst other ways.

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