Fire incidents expose Nairobi's lack of plan to handle disasters

Firefighters use anti-riot water canon to put off fire following a gas explosion in Embakasi, Nairobi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Two recent fire incidents in Nairobi have raised questions about the county’s disaster preparedness.

The first incident happened at the City Stadium roundabout before a gas explosion at Mradi in Embakasi East, leading to deaths and the destruction of property.

Witnesses said firefighting engines arrived late, up to one hour later, and did not have enough water to put out the flames. And as the trucks went back to fetch water, the flames were destroying properties worth millions of shillings.

Fire rescue service is a shared responsibility between the national and county governments. However, glaring lapses exist.

Pius Masai, former deputy director of the National Disaster Management Unit (NDMU), said counties are not prepared in disaster response preparedness, prevention and mitigation.

“The fire incidents that have happened in the recent past, including the Embakasi gas explosion, shows the county government is not adequately prepared to handle disasters, which has left the public exposed to hazards,” said Masai, who is now the director general of PIMAC International.

A firefighter rolls the horse pipe after putting off a fire that had caught Ebrahim Shopping mall along Moi Avenue in Nairobi's CBD. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

In Embakasi with a huge population, he said, fires can kill many people if caution is not taken.

“The response to the gas explosion was poor. The time has come for the county government to set up fire stations in slums or high-density areas such as Huruma and Pipeline where there are frequent incidences of fire and collapsing buildings. Unfortunately, these services are stationed in the Central Business District (CBD) and it takes a lot of time to reach the scene of incidents,” Masai said.

Witnesses to the Embakasi incident said G4S and Kenya Airports Authority responded faster than the county and national fire engines.

Masai, who is also the chief executive of the Safety Professionals and Experts in Disaster Management and Volunteers Association Kenya & Global Initiatives, added: “I expected the NDMU to have coordinated the resources as the county fire engines in rescue operation assisted by the private sector but they were nowhere.”

Nairobi deputy governor Njoroge Muchiri admitted that county fire engines did not arrive in good time but said plans are underway to construct a fire station at Gikomba.

“We also plan to put up hydrants near businesses to help them when we have such fire incidents. I am also asking business people within Nairobi to cooperate with our fire rescue teams so that there are access roads for fire engines to easily pass whenever there is fire,” said Muchiri, who spoke after fire razed down premises at the City Stadium roundabout.

Starehe MP Amos Mwago blamed the county for not installing the hydrants as they promised in the last Gikomba fire incident.

Bramwel Simiyu, the Chief Officer for Disaster Management in the county government of Nairobi, said they have invited applications for a contractor for Gikomba fire station.

“We plan to put up more fire stations in Kangemi, Clay City in Kasarani and Showground along Ngong Road,” said Simiyu.

A police officer keeps guard at Mradi gas explosion site in Embakasi on February 06, 2024.  [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

He said the county has eight functional fire engines and has started setting up community disaster management and emergency teams in low-income areas. The teams will be trained and equipped to be first responders in case of disaster. 

Masai called for the establishment of a multi-agency disaster incident management system. He said the lack of a national disaster management law is also hampering efforts to get the country prepared to tackle disasters such as fire.

In 2017, then Isiolo County Woman Representative Tiyah Galgalo sponsored the first-ever Disaster Management Bill which, unfortunately, did not see the light of day.

It sought to establish a Disaster Risk Management Authority to liaise with the national and county governments to deal with catastrophes, and also offer advice on disaster risk management measures.

The Bill also sought to establish a Disaster Risk Management Fund to provide cash for disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery measures.

Under the proposals, the government would be compelled to pay into the fund not less than two per cent of its total revenue in addition to any aid or assistance received to manage disasters in the country.

The Bill also proposed the formation of a County Disaster Risk Management Committee, chaired by the governor, which would be charged with the responsibility of advising the county government on matters relating to disaster management.

Under the National Assembly Bill Tracker, which tracks the statuses of Bills, it is now called The National Disaster Risk Management Bill, 2023 sponsored by Leader of the Majority Kimani Ichungwa and was Bill No. 24 of 2023. It went through the first reading on August 09, 2023 and stopped there.

There were efforts by the counties to come up with the County Fire and Rescue Services Act. Some county governments passed the Bill but were asked to relax the process until the national government comes up with an Act. 

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