Fire outbreaks in buildings: Why it’s more than just fire extinguishing
- Once the fire has broken out immediate action is needed. Thus the need of local fire extinguishing aids: chemical fire extinguishers, functioning water hoses and water hydrants, and sand buckets. In many Tanzanian buildings such precautions do not exist, or are nonfunctional; and many people do not know how to use them.
Last weekend media reported a fire outbreak in a building in a village in Morogoro. Four people, a father and his three children perished in the inferno. A week earlier, the Vice President had commissioned the regional Fire and Rescue Force station in Temeke, calling for the construction of at least one fire station in each of Tanzania’s district; as well as the institution of water points to assist in fire extinguishing efforts.
Fires do break out now and then in our buildings. The Fire Brigade is known for appearing late and ill-equipped, to the extent in some instances an irate crowd has pelleted fire-fighting personnel, when they arrive at a fire outbreak scene, only to find that people have largely extinguished it on a self-help basis.
Students of property-related professions including architects, engineers, valuers and estate managers take courses related to fire precautions in buildings. Minimising fire outbreaks in buildings includes matters of design, construction materials, building or room use, and external factors such as land use planning, access roads and the existence of water at sufficient pressure.
Ideally, a fire should not break out in a building. Materials such as electricity wires and outlets should not overheat, or cause sparks, leading to a fire. The electrical system in a building must be able to disconnect itself if there is an electric fault.
Combustible materials are not allowed in areas such as the kitchen. Special precautions are necessary when using gas or charcoal. Unfortunately, many electrical fittings are not genuine. Electrical faults arising out of use of substandard materials, and/or poor and uncertified workmanship contribute to the frequency of fire out breaks. This is made worse by the lack of regular check-ups, maintenance and rehabilitation of aged electrical installations.
Should fire break out, precautions require it to be localized; a function of the materials used, and of fire-resistance qualities of members of the building. Doors should resist fire for some time, allowing people to escape.
Once the fire has broken out immediate action is needed. Thus the need of local fire extinguishing aids: chemical fire extinguishers, functioning water hoses and water hydrants, and sand buckets. In many Tanzanian buildings such precautions do not exist, or are nonfunctional; and many people do not know how to use them.
Also when a fire has occurred or there is a danger of it occurring there must be a system to warn the building occupants. Alarms, triggered by smoke detectors, or heat, or by breaking a glass or pulling a switch exist. But in many Tanzanian buildings such precautions do not exist or are unmaintained.
Another precaution is fire-escape routes. These must be provided for, especially in high-rise buildings, and must be clearly marked, must not be blocked, must not have combustible materials nearby and must be easy to open.
Where a fire escape door must be kept locked, the key should be placed nearby in a clear glass, the breaking of which allows it to be retrieved, and sometimes triggers a fire alarm.
Fire precaution regulations are more stringent with regard to high-rise multi-occupied and public buildings. In Tanzania, there is need to insist on high fire precaution standards even for single storey residential houses, especially as a result of the so-called “architecture of fear”. House-owners are forced to install iron bars and grills on any opening in the building such as doors and windows, making it difficult for occupants to escape or be rescued from the building in the case of a fire. Tanzania needs fire precaution regulations to address such a situation, such as ensuring that grills can be opened from inside and/or to have mandatory fire extinguishers in residential houses.
The design of many residential buildings in Tanzania renders them to fire hazards. Exits are through the sitting room or kitchen both, while rooms for sleeping in are on the other side of the house. Clearly there is need to have exits that are not related to the kitchen or the sitting room.
Existence of fire instructions, including fire drills is important. These should be well displayed in a building, telling the occupiers what to do in the case of fire. From time to time occupiers should be subjected to a fire drill. Fire alarms are sounded and people are required to behave the way they would behave in case of a fire. Such precautions are hardly taken in Tanzania.
Other factors put buildings (and life) in danger particularly in urban areas. These include the unplanned nature of many neighbourhoods; ignoring of building setbacks, lack of access roads or, their impassability; lack of proper addresses for buildings; lack, or low pressure, of water supply, and inefficient fire-fighting services
Tanzania needs to do something to avoid witnessing properties being destroyed by fire. The level of consciousness over the danger of fire must be raised through training and enforcing regulations. Occupiers of multi-used and complex buildings need regular training and fire drills. Fire-fighting establishments must be given the respect, the resources and authority that they need to enable them to inspect buildings, and enforce regulations. They should also make themselves visible and active.
Whenever a fire breaks out, there must be investigation to establish its cause and what could have been done to avoid or minimize damage. Findings should be made public, with recommendations for actions to avoid future occurrences.
Finally, Tanzanian buildings should carry a compulsory fire insurance. This would add pressure on property owners to comply with fire precautions.