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Dousing fire without hope


DAMAGED EQUIPMENT—Fire accident at MTL building in Lilongwe

When fire accidents occurs seeking the help of fire brigade is inevitable. However, amid increasing cases of fire accidents in the country, PETER KANJERE has discovered that Malawi does not have a harmonised national response to such accidents and most fire fighters work under difficult conditions. All this is due to the absence of Fire Act to guide such a response and empower relevant personnel to enforce fire safety measures.

On the evening of January 14 2020, fire razed down MTL Microwave Building in Area 3, Lilongwe, destroying the parastatal’s multiplex control system and transmitters for most broadcasting stations, thereby keeping them off air in most areas, especially the Central Region.

The damaged building hosted transmission equipment for Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, Telecom Networks Limited, Times Television and Radio, Zodiak Broadcasting Station, Malawi Digital Broadcast Network Limited (MDBNL) Kiliye Kiliye and Trans World Radio.

The full picture of the severity of the damage is yet to emerge but according to MDBNL, they estimate to have lost equipment valued at over $1 million.

An electrical fault is suspected to have caused the fire but reports suggest that the damage could have been minimised had Lilongwe Fire Brigade arrived in time and if they were well equipped to deal with the inferno.

A report from one of the affected companies has revealed how the Lilongwe Fire Brigade struggled, then failed to operate its fire-fighting pumps after arriving on the scene of the accident.

Worse still, the team that first noticed the fire failed to contact the fire fighters as their emergency phone numbers could not be reached.

Desperate to save the equipment, the team on the ground had to drive all the way to the fire offices to inform them about the accident. During that time, the fire had consumed valuable transmission gadgets.

The report sums up the frustrations.

“Failure of the Fire Brigade’s first vehicle to switch on and extinguish the fire brings to the fore a hard lesson—unreliability of emergency support services to offer help on time,” it reads.

“They [the team on the ground] tried to inform the fire brigade about the fire unsuccessfully. The emergency numbers to the fire brigade couldn’t get through… they tried to assist the fire brigade to set up the first van unsuccessfully as the fire-fighting pumps system didn’t work.”

A day after the accident, Lilongwe City Council Fire Officer, Gideon Mwanza, told The Daily Times that they were unable to save most of the equipment because they were alerted late.

The fire accident happened barely a week after a similar accident destroyed property at Delamere House in Blantyre.

Weeks earlier, fire had also gutted The Polytechnic’s Nyika hostel, Chancellor College Library and Hotel Masongola in Zomba. Last year, fire also rendered most Blantyre Market vendors destitute.

Before the fire accident in Lilongwe, fire fighters from across the country met on how best to avert such disasters. They intend to submit a report to the government hoping the authorities would see sense in investing in fire accident mitigating measures.

Mwanza said the causes of fire accidents are many in the country, including failure to follow safety measures.

“Most buildings in Malawi are old, there are leaks and some electrical connections and sockets are loose. Fire issues have been undermined for a long time and few people are knowledgeable on how to handle fire accidents, for example, how to operate a fire extinguisher. There are fire extinguishers in some buildings but few people know how to operate them. It is high time we did something in Malawi in terms of awareness and preparedness. We should involve all stakeholders and we need strong will,” he said.

City councils have fire engines to deal with such fires but the same is not the case with district councils.

“There is fire accident cover in city councils and corporate entities but what about the other districts? We do not have enough equipment and enough manpower. The big problem is that we do not have a Fire Act that can fully support a national response to fire accidents, especially when they have happened outside the council jurisdiction,” he said.

Mwanza said fire accidents can be prevented if all parties involved in construction and management of buildings such as contractors, engineers and landlords take delivery fire preventive measures.

In most cases, city councils have fire engines but few of them are functional. They are badly in need of repairing but most of the councils are hit by funding hitches.

For example, Lilongwe City Council has five fire vehicles but only three are functional. The three have a capacity of 1,000 litres, 1,500 litres and 8,000 litres. Not enough to handle emergency needs of such a big city.

The situation is no different with

Mzuzu City Council (MCC) where financial challenges mean that most of the fire engines are not operational.

MCC spokesperson, McDonald Gondwe, recently said they were trying their best to ensure timely response to fire accidents, but called for support from stakeholders.

“We have three fire engines but the ones that are operational are two. From the two, only one is reliable, but again, it has issues to do with capacity of liquid. The liquid it can carry is small compared to the others. We don’t have enough fire engines. The only reliable one cannot hold enough water at a go. The other challenge is that the fire engine we have can only handle structures that are up to three storeys. We can’t reach structures that are above three storeys,” Gondwe said.

Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development spokesperson, Muhlabase Mughogho, recently said issues of fire response are supposed to be handled at council level and that there was no need for an Act.

“Fire service is a decentralised function. Therefore, councils can come up with their own response strategies. It is not supposed to be a national response or an Act,” Mughogho said.

However, it appears Malawi badly needs such an Act to offer guidelines on fire safety, prevention and protection.

The damage which fire accidents cause is huge.

Such an Act would also address issues of welfare of fire officers and empower them to deal with non-compliant institutions and establishments by either fining or closing them.

Efforts to come up with a Fire Act date back to 1998, when a team of British fire engineers in conjunction with fire brigades from all city councils formed Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association.

In 2018, property worth K1.2 billion was lost in two market fires alone, at Mzuzu Central Market and Tsoka Market in Lilongwe. The fires affected 2,260 traders.

A report by Pedzisai John Zembeneko published in The Daily Times edition of June 21 2019 noted that whenever there is a fire accident, fire fighters are at the receiving end of insults, with some even being stoned for perceived slow and inadequate responses to such accidents.

He quoted Chief Fire Officer, Lilongwe City Council Fire Brigade, Robert Jiya, who attributed their challenges to a number of factors.

He said fire officers are harshly judged without regard to their situation, saying they face challenges such as where to get water, transport and technical expertise including poor staffing.

According to Jiya, the Institution of Fire Engineers says a single shift ought to have not less than 20 officers for effective work, but fire brigades in Malawi, mainly from city councils, have five or less officers per shift.

Meanwhile, Fire Brigade in the country uses Occupation Safety, Health and Welfare Act (No 21 of 1997) in its operations. This law does not address critical issues related to fire fighting.

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