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Jose Ngunjiri: Fire survivor risking life to save others

Work Life
 Jose Ngunjiri during a fire advocacy campaign. [Wangeci Kanyeki, Standard]

When Jose Ngunjiri was 4 months old, he was left alone in a small house in Nairobi’s Eastleigh Section 6.

His caregiver who had gone to pick up his sister from a nearby school, also left food cooking on a kerosene stove. 

Unfortunately, the house caught fire. Upon returning to the house, the caregiver broke the door, crawled under the smoke and rescued the baby who was thereafter hospitalised at Kenyatta National Hospital for over 9 months.

Jose got severe burns on his left hand, severing his fingers. The left side of the face and arm also still bear the scars of the traumatic burn. 

Now 43 years old, Jose is a firefighter and fire safety advocate. Looking back, he says the accident from his childhood could have ushered him towards this career path.

During his advocacy missions, he trains nannies and househelps on fire prevention and why they should first call the fire station before calling their bosses. He also features on children’s shows Akili Kids and Tochi & Jose Fire Safety.

 Jose Ngunjiri who does fire advocacy campaigns. [Wangeci Kanyeki, Standard]

For the last 5 years, Jose has worked with Africa Fire Mission. In the humanitarian work, he has encountered over 15 major fires, especially in Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi, and also recalls being part of fire-fighting team for a tissue factory fire in Baba Dogo that lasted two consecutive days, requiring the firefighters to take shifts to put out the fires.

According to Jose, a firefighter is ready at all times, dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE), for the telephone call that will instruct them on where the next fire incident is.

Going into action

“We are already in game mode as we approach the building or house on fire. Our arrival is announced by the fire truck siren,” says Ngunjiri.

For backup, support and accountability and fire firefighters go into action in twos. At the site, a firefighter first assesses the situation to manage their own safety and determine where the exit paths are situated, while also checking the wall materials such as concrete or wood to assess the safety of the building.

Every fire is different and the firefighters investigate the cause of the fire to establish the appropriate method of managing it.

“We have been trained to be calm in the midst of chaos and at the Commander’s instruction, we crawl into the burning building to carry out our duty. We risk much to save much and, because of the nature of our work, we live every day with a perspective as if each day is our last day. I live each day to my fullest,” says Ngunjiri.

Firefighters have to first scan if there are any persons in distress at the scene fire scene, look out for children who may be hiding under beds, in fridges or closets and save the distressed child with appropriate firefighting techniques.

Jose has not always been a firefighter, he was previously a mobile phone engineer and, in 2014, he felt an emptiness in his life and desire to live a more purposeful life. This led him to take drastic steps, including training, to change his career to a firefighter. 

Safety first

Regarding keeping firefighters safe in the line of duty, Nancy Moore, Executive Director of Africa Fire Mission, provides training and fire safety equipment to fire departments in several African countries to keep the firefighters safe and to help protect the communities they serve. This is after a visit to Nairobi in 2012 where they discovered that the City of Nairobi had two fire trucks for five million people in the capital city.

 Jose Ngunjiri during a fire rescue incident. [Wangeci Kanyeki, Standard]

“Firefighters in Kenya and across the world put their lives on the line in order to protect lives and property in their community. In order for firefighters to succeed in doing their jobs they must be properly trained and equipped to do so. Firefighters in Kenya and much of Sub-Saharan Africa do not have sufficient or appropriate personal protective equipment, firefighting tools or firefighting apparatus to respond to fires and other emergencies. There have been strides made to increase personnel and equipment across Kenya in the last 10 years, however, more support is needed within Kenya at the county level to address the deficit,” Ms Moore says.

In 2019, Jose as he is commonly known, organised a stair climb event that attracted 101 firefighters across Kenya. He also does advocacy fire safety training in informal settlements in Nairobi to educate the communities on fire safety.

“Five years ago, we would receive 6-7 fire reports monthly from Mathare Valley and, currently, the fires have reduced to one or at most two fire incidents in a month. This is largely because the trained community fire champions are able to contain the fire, call the fire stations in good time and protect firefighters and their fire trucks from being stoned when they arrive on the site of a fire,” Jose says.

Human negligence is attributed to the cause of 90 per cent of all fires. Common causes of fires at the household level are caused by human error which include but are not limited to drunkenness, domestic violence, leaving cook stoves unattended, electrical overload and illegal electrical installations as well as leaving flammable items near a fire. Ground-level cooking is a major cause of burn injuries for children under 5 years old who often get hot water or tea burns while playing near the fire.

To raise fire safety awareness in the public communities, Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), in collaboration with Burns Society of Kenya a non-governmental organisation, bring together several disaster management first-responder stakeholders including the National Disaster Management Unit – NDMU, Kenya National Fire Brigade Association, Nairobi County Fire, Kenya Police, Africa Fire Mission, Kenya Red Cross Society, St John Ambulance Kenya, Crisis Control East Africa, Ethnomed Healthcare amongst others. 

The group is set to hold the Fire Safety and Burns Awareness Week from Septe

mber 11-15 to sensitise the public on fire prevention safety tips at home.

Jose says that firefighters go through post-traumatic stress disorder and do not talk about their experiences so as not to relieve the losses of lives and property they witnessed at a fire event.However, other than a debrief session called the ‘fire table’ where over 100 firefighters from Africa meet online every Wednesday to talk openly about their feelings, most firefighters have no psycho-social support.

“The governments in Africa should designate psychologists to give therapy to the firefighters to take care of their emotional and mental well-being and also give them a risk allowance and insurance cover,” he says.

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