The sad tale of Kenya’s firefighters

By Joe Kiarie

Fire fighters have come out boldly to describe how the Government has grossly neglected them for years.

They say they not only survive on peanuts but also lack crucial firefighting gear, a factor that has reduced them to a subject of mockery.

And despite the risky nature of their profession, the firefighters neither have medical nor insurance cover.

According to Kenya National Fire Brigade Association (Kenfiba) secretary general Francis Omollo, Kenya has 510 fire fighters to handle a population of over 35 million.

Those in Nairobi earn an average monthly salary of Sh10,000 while their colleagues in smaller towns earn a salary raging from Sh6,000 to Sh8,000. They get Sh500 as risk allowance.

Protective Gear

And despite this, he says the firefighters also lack basic protective gear to wear while at work.

Francis Omollo. [PHOTO: Evans Habil/STANDARD]

"While they have inadequate helmets, tunic suits and fire boots, the worst is that they do not have any protective face masks, meaning that they are exposed to all kinds of lethal chemicals," Omollo told The Standard on Sunday.

He cited the example of the recent inferno that razed the Nakumatt Downtown retail outlet in Nairobi, where onlookers were being advised to stay away on grounds that there were thousands of chemicals emanating from the burning supermarket.

"But what of the firefighters who were putting off the fire inside the building without anything to protect them from inhaling the chemicals? Who cares for them?" he wonders.

On fire fighting equipment, Omollo says there is a shortage of fire engines, a move that has incapacitated the brigade.

He says that while Nairobi has three state-of-the-art fire engines, Kisumu and Nakuru have one while the one in Mombasa was recently burnt down by hawkers, leaving the coastal city at the mercy of two rickety engines.

Unskilled personnel

He says some 18 Land Rovers with a 500-litre capacity were recently taken to different towns that do not even have fire stations, from where they are now operated by unskilled personnel.

"It is a pity that in case of multiple fire outbreaks the brigade has to hire private water bowsers, which are not steady and not meant for the service. Recently, one of the bowsers overturned and killed the in-charge as it speeded to respond to an emergency at Baba Dogo," he says.

When it comes to personnel, Omollo says Nairobi and Mombasa have 150 and 110 fire fighters respectively, including those in the administrative levels. Kisumu has 24, Nakuru has 25, Machakos has six, Nanyuki five while Embu town has only three.

"As fire fighters, we now have to make it public that we are dealing with an impossible mission and it is time Kenyans know that we have been trying to do our best under very risky circumstances," Omollo states.

He says three firemen are yet to be compensated after they lost their lives in the course of duty.

The three are Samuel Warothe who died at the Nairobi hospital after a wall fell on him at Mukuru Kaiyaba while fighting fire in 1997, a Mr Wachira who died in 1998, crashed by a wall he climbed to fight a fire and Peter Musao Masyuko who died at the Kenyatta National Hospital in 2001 when a water bowser hired to help fight a fire at the Survey of Kenya ran over him.

Omollo says another hiccup has been abolition of a 999 emergency number that was previously used to call the brigade incase of a fire outbreak.

"It was easy as this was an express link. But police say it was abused and Kenyans now have to use direct lines that are charged, making it hard to communicate," he explains.

60-day strike notice

Last Saturday, the association gave the Government a 60-day notice to implement the National Fire Safety Policy, failure to which fire fighters will go on strike. The final draft of the policy was finalised in 2006 and later handed over to the Cabinet for approval, but its fate remains unknown today.

In June this year, several MPs took Special Programmes Assistant Minister Muhamud Ali to task in Parliament over the country’s poor preparedness to disasters and delays in implementing the policy.

Bura MP Dr Nuh Nassir Abdi (ODM) wanted to know why the firefighters were being paid such a negligible salary and lacked medical and insurance covers and also why the country has only eight fire engines.

Turkana Central legislator Ekwe Ethuro wondered why the Lodwar Municipal Council did not have a single fire extinguisher.

Ali conceded to the country’s inability to deal with disasters but said efforts were underway to reverse the situation. This year alone, over 200 people have lost their lives in fire tragedies in Kenya.

The draft National Fire Policy of Kenya 2005 paints a gloom picture of the country’s preparedness to handle fire disasters.

The policy seeks to drastically improve all aspects of fire fighting in the country, including insuring emergency workers such as fire fighters against injury and death resulting from fire emergencies and other elated disasters.

Today, it states, the Nairobi City Council fire department receives 300 distress calls a month, translating to 10 incidents a day.