The shame of pathetic state of fire departments in devolved units

Lack of investment in fire fighting equipment and personnel has left Kenyans feeling like sitting ducks every time infernos strike.

Investigations by the Nation reveal that most counties do not have the capacity to respond effectively to fire outbreaks. This has led to loss of lives and destruction of property worth millions of shillings.

 In July for instance, a huge blaze broke out at Daraja Mbili market in Kisii town, destroying goods worth Sh30 million. At least 250 traders lost all their property in the fire.

According to Mr James Anyoka, who chairs the Kisii Jua Kali Association, firefighters arrived at the scene within an hour but were ill-equipped to fight the inferno. It took them nearly 11 hours to contain it.

The official says the traders would still have their property had the fire department and the Disaster Management Unit been properly functional. 

FIRE DEPARTMENTS

Multiple interviews with firemen revealed the sorry state of fire departments across the country. In Kisii County, for instance, those who spoke to Nation on condition of anonymity claimed the fire department lacks sufficient equipment to contain  infernos.  

There have, for instance, been six big fires in the past two months, but fire fighters say they have not been able to contain any of them in time.

The fire engines in the region are said to be old, having served for the past 25 years.

Recently, the department that comprises 20 firemen was further crippled when one of its two modern fire trucks, leased by a Thika-based firm, was repossessed.

The firemen said they have been unable to put out most fires because of the poor state of equipment, low water carrying capacity and lack of enough firefighting equipment.

“We cannot do our jobs properly. We simply don’t have an office as well as equipment such as gas masks and firefighting attire. We also lack an operational communication network with the public,” one of the firemen, who sought anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Nation.

FIRE VICTIMS

Another firefighter said it was unfortunate they were on the receiving end of the wrath of fire victims for mistakes that are not of their own making.

“Residents are not aware that a new fire engine that was leased a few years ago is no longer here. We are regularly attacked for not doing our job properly but they don’t understand we are currently using an old fire truck,” he said.

But Kisii County’s Disaster Recovery Department Director Julius Tinega rebutted the claims, saying the fire truck works well. 

“The fire engine is in perfect working condition and we have a back-up water bowser that has been modified to help out with big fires,” Mr Tinega told Nation.

Kisumu County also struggles to contain fires. Inadequate staff, lack of proper equipment and inability to control crowds at fire scenes have made the job of firefighters difficult, leading to deaths and property loss.

At the popular Kibuye market, for instance, at least three fires are experienced every year, often with devastating consequences.  

STAFF SHORTAGE

Last week, a fire broke out in a dormitory at Sigoti Girls in Nyakach sub-county. Students’ belongings were razed but no injuries were reported.

Firefighters arrived at the scene after the inferno had been contained. Fire equipment in Kisumu also serves Siaya, Migori, Homa Bay and Busia counties.  

This means that should fire break out in all these counties, authorities would have serious trouble containing it.

Part of the hotel which was razed down by an inferno at Ziwa Beach Resort in Mombasa on September 16, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Part of the hotel which was razed down by an inferno at Ziwa Beach Resort in Mombasa on September 16, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Mr Boaz Rombo, the lead fireman in Kisumu, said the main fire engine is grounded and has been in the garage since 2015.  He blamed this on “too much bureaucracy” especially in dealing with repairs.

“There is also one smaller engine we use for rapid response, which has also been grounded for a very long time,” said Mr Rombo.

“There is a need for having at least one fire engine in all the seven sub-counties of Kisumu or one that covers at least two of them,” he added.

Mr Rombo said the defunct county councils and the county government have failed to hire more staff to the department.

BIG SHORTFALL

“We have three platoons, which should be having 15 firemen each. But for years, we have been operating with barely four per platoon, which operates in shifts. This is a big shortfall,” said Mr Rombo.

He said they lack breathing apparatus while some do not have oxygen in them. This, in effect, makes it difficult to carry out rescue services, especially when victims are in a well or a hole.

“Some people think our services begin and end at extinguishing fires. They do not know that we also help those whose houses have been invaded by swarms of bees and also salvage those who have drowned. All these services need proper equipment and gear such as safety boots and gloves,” said the lead fireman.

Mr Rombo noted that at the Kisumu fire station, the kitchen, dormitory and offices are in a deplorable state, something that affects the morale of firefighters.

He also called for the establishment of water hydrants at various points in the city including learning institutions.

FIRE ENGINES

In Western region, three counties rely on Kakamega’s fire fighting equipment. At the county’s main fire station, two working fire engines are supposed to serve Vihiga, Bungoma and Busia counties.

Kakamega Public Service Executive Rachael Okumu  said two other fire engines had broken down and were undergoing repairs.

While it has been a policy to have all public institutions install hydrants so that fire trucks can easily tap in to put out fires, instead of having to carry water, this is not the case in the county.

Kisii County fire fighters trying to put off fire that razed down makeshift market in Kisii town on July 22, 2017.  PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kisii County fire fighters trying to put off fire that razed down makeshift market in Kisii town on July 22, 2017. PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Acting Chief Fire Officer Moses Anambo said most of the hydrants have been vandalised, forcing trucks to drive seven kilometres to a river whenever fires erupt in the town.

The county has 14 firefighters working in shifts and a 24-hour telephone line to respond to emergencies. But county officials say the problem with delayed response falls partly on the consumers of their services.

“The other major challenge is victims of fire outbreaks take too long to contact us and by the time they do so, it is too late to minimise the damage to property and contain the spread of the blaze,” said Mr Anambo.

LIVES LOST

There is also the challenge of distance from the fire station to the disaster scene, like the case of a mother and five children killed in a fire in Matanya village, Laikipia County on the night of August 15. Firefighters drove for 25 kilometres from Nanyuki to the scene, arriving too late when the fire had already consumed the wooden house.

All the residents could do was watch helplessly. Even though a section of residents argue that there was nothing much the firefighters could do to save the six lives as the fire consumed the house within a record 15 minutes, others blamed them for taking too long to respond to the distress calls.

“Getting to fire scenes is normally a major challenge for us. One, we have a major problem with accessing the areas due to overcrowding, especially in slum areas. There is also the question of using highly inflammable materials like wood to construct houses,” said a firefighter who sought anonymity. He cited Maina and Manguo slums in Nyahururu as areas they have always faced challenges in fighting fires.

DISASTERS

In Nyandarua County, residents are of the opinion that the county government should prioritise the purchase of a modern firefighting equipment.

The same situation is replicated in the North Rift, with revelations that Elgeyo Marakwet, Nandi, West Pokot and Turkana counties are  ill-equipped to respond to fire disasters. Apart from Uasin Gishu, which acquired modern  firefighting engines and trained its personnel, the counties rely on the private sector to tackle infernos — including Kenya Airports Authority, Sugar milling, and wood processing companies, which run disaster preparedness departments.

In Baringo, which has two trucks,  residents say  firefighters have been caught unprepared by the fires.

Residents claim that whenever the fire department is alerted about a fire  outbreak, the excuse most of the time has been that they lack fuel for their vehicles or water to put out the fires.  

 Reports by Elizabeth Ojina, Elgar Machuka, Derick Luvega, Benson Amadala, Rushdie Oudia,  Steve Njuguna, Waikwa Maina, Macharia Mwangi, Dennis Lubanga, Florah Koech and Titus Oteba

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