By Pedzisai John Zembeneko:
It is rush hour. Siren blares along the congested road. A fire engine has been dispatched to put off fire at Lilongwe Teachers Training College (LTTC). The fire brigade struggles to circumvent traffic to the scene at short notice.
The road is narrow, without shoulders, and other road-users are, apparently, contravening rules. However, shifting an inch off the road would lead them into gullies by the road side.
Seventeen minutes later, the firemen arrive at the scene, only to be greeted by insults. The fire-fighters— clad in black, faded reflector-stripped uniforms— pay a deaf ear to the insults. Their team leader issues instructions and they start working.
Luckily though, they manage to quell the raging fire from spreading to another floor.
This is not an isolated incident as the media has reported many cases of uncontrollable fire destroying lives and properties.
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.
However, every time there is a fire incident, fire-fighters are insulted and even stoned in the course of duty.
Many people are concerned by slow and inadequate response from the fire-fighters. On the back of protests is Chief Fire Officer, Lilongwe City Council Fire Brigade, Robert Jiya. He attributes their challenges to a number of factors.
He believes that fire-officers are harshly judged without regard to their situation. He says the officers face challenges, ranging from where they get the water, how they transport it and technical expertise.
“Originally, Lilongwe City had 849 water hydrants for use in areas under its jurisdiction but, over time, only a few remain in use. Some hydran ts have been vandalised, some are underneath houses or inside plots with brick walls and some are even filled up with garbage.
“Again, fire engines have less volume water capacity and take few minutes before they dry up. Time taken to respond depends on a number of things such as traffic flow, direction to the scene and time of duty call,” Jiya says.
He says fire-fighting requires participation of the community.
“Block leaders, religious leaders and other opinion leaders in communities should civic educate their subjects,” Jiya says.
Staffing issues also rock the unsung heroes.
According to Jiya, the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) 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.
There are other grounds of disquiet as well. Many people think fire brigade services are payable.
“Fire brigades in the country provide services to city councils jurisdiction except the other two, Malawi Defence Force and Aviation (Chileka and Kamuzu international airports). We provide services to people within city parameters because they pay rates. Our services are completely free-of-charge,” Jiya says.
While several markets have been gutted by fire in recent years and people have talked about them in different fora, it seems the focus is only event-driven. The country still lacks strict regulations regarding fire safety, protection and prevention.
One major contributing factor to these perennial fires is the nonexistence of a Fire Act.
A Fire Act sets guidelines on fire safety, prevention and protection. It guides on welfare of fire officers, resulting in non-compliant institutions and establishments being either fined or closed.
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 (Cacfoa). This organisation was registered and is legally established in Malawi. Its central objective is to control and respond to all fire happenings in the country.
“The organisation is struggling to come up with requirements of a Fire Act. Our last meeting was held in Kasungu way back in 2011. During the meeting, it was agreed by all regional fire brigades for each city council to draw articles that Cacfoa would finally incorporate into a final draft of Fire Act.
“Cacfoa was of the view that its draft would be taken and presented to Parliament through Local Government. To this point, it means the probable articles are still in the hands of individual city councils, if they were drafted at all,” Jiya says.
Furthermore, Jiya says funds are the major challenge facing the organisation.
Nearly all Southern African Development Community countries have Fire Acts and vibrant fire brigades. For example, in Botswana, the brigade is ultimately owned and controlled by its Air Force. Our neighbours on the east, Tanzania, attached their brigade to Police. Basically, these agents have speedy response to duty calls.
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.
Consequently, adherence to fire prevention and control regulations has been minimal. Now, you hardly see fire extinguishers in shops whether in central business areas or any other place despite trading in combustive materials.
Significantly, there is mix up of business ventures. People trading in combustive materials and those operating eateries are too close and this increases the potential for fires. In fact, it complicates the task of fire-fighting.
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