I am re-cycling this article, which I first wrote in February 2010 following the fires at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Information. Then as now, ‘lazy’ politicians and their ‘misguided’ supporters were blaming arson and in the end none of the accusations was substantiated. Below is an edited version of the article I then entitled ‘The fire service cannot be the first line of defence’.

The composition of the committee set up to investigate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fire can be criticised because it was more of a ‘political’ one rather than a committee of experts. The time within which they were asked to report was also short and the investigative steps adopted were not systematic. No lessons would be learnt and future occurrences would not be prevented if proper investigative steps are not followed. The committee has now reported yet apart from the public declaration that the cause was not due to arson, no other lessons have been shared with the public on how to safely use buildings as far as the risk of fire is concerned. A whole host of commentators on this issue appear to put the assurance of fire safety solely in the hands of the Fire Service. There have been articles in various media, some even calling the Fire Service a ‘coal pot’ service and some rightly criticising past and present governments for not appropriately equipping the service to discharge its duties.

The criticism of the fire service may or may not be justified but we are ignoring one fact. Fire fighting is a very hazardous occupation and we should not be calling on them certainly not at the rate that fires are currently breaking out in Ghana. The fire incidents reflect more our poor behaviour rather than the inefficiencies of the Ghana National Fire Service. The service has a role to play alright but if we have to rely on them as the first line of defence then we are all failing on a massive scale.

Ensuring fire safety requires a hierarchy of measures which can be referred to by the acronym: E-R-I-C, which in descending order of effectiveness, stands for:

* ELIMINATE or avoid the fire hazard in the first place;

* REDUCE the risk of fire incidence;

* ISOLATE inventory or items that are highly flammable or highly combustible; and

* Control the growth, spread and duration as well as the effects of the fire.
Fire fighters are only involved in the last set of measures of controlling the growth and effects of the fire when all other preceding measures have failed or are absent. I will proceed to explain what is involved in this hierarchy of measures.

1. Elimination or avoidance of the fire hazard: To start a fire requires an ignition source and fuel to sustain the fire. The fuel in this case is anything flammable or combustible stored or kept in a room or in a building including furniture, curtains, clothing, beddings, paper, and in some cases flammable liquid. The more combustible these are and the more of them you have in the originating room, the more severe the resulting fire. It therefore stands to reason that the safest measure to adopt to prevent fire is to separate the ignition source from the inventory.

If there are items stored in a room where there is no ignition source, there is no risk of fire. In the same vein, an ignition source in an empty room poses no great fire risk. A visit to our markets will reveal the large amount of combustible inventory kept in stalls that have electrical fittings and appliances of questionable quality.

Since this measure is at the top of the hierarchy of measures, it is always difficult to achieve globally but it can be done on a room by room basis. The question to ponder is: if there is a room which is used or accessed infrequently, why plug in electrical equipment in that room for say for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?

2. Reduction in fire risk: Since it is difficult to separate ignition sources from fuels (i.e. the inventory), the next set of measures is to reduce the risk posed by both the ignition source and the items stored in a room (and for that matter in a building). Some of the measures to be taken to reduce the risk of ignition might include:

* Ensuring that plugs, sockets and other electrical interfaces are of the required quality and are in good state of repair;

* Ensuring that electrical installations are carried out by qualified persons;

* Ensuring that sockets are not overloaded with several items plugged in at the same point through extension leads;

* Switching off and unplugging electrical items that are not in use, especially when one is going to be away from the room or building for an extended period;

Some of the measures to be taken to reduce the risk posed by room/building contents might include:

* Ensuring that furniture upholstery, mattresses and surfaces are made of less combustible material;

* Storing highly flammable liquids and highly combustible items in their own dedicated compartments;

* Limiting the amount of inventory/items kept or stored in one room to limit the fire load;

* Getting rid of all junk material that may no longer be needed; and

* Within each room or compartment, keeping the inventory as far away as practicable from the ignition sources (i.e. electrical plugs).

3. Isolation of highly flammable/combustible inventory from main building: If you visit our markets, high risk and low risk activities are not kept away from each other. But there are some inventories which are naturally highly flammable for instance petroleum products. These cannot and should not be kept with other less flammable items. In fact to stay safe, they should not be kept within occupied buildings without special measures. They should ideally be kept in dedicated compartments with the walls and roofs engineered to prevent the spread of fire from such compartments.
In the Ministry of information fire of 2010 it was unbelievable to hear on GTV news that the store that caught fire did contain engine oil, lorry tyres, stationery and bales of clothes. In fact this was a recipe for a fire incident. It was thus all the more disappointing that the then outgoing minister (Zita Okai Kwei) was rather accusing ‘unseen hands’. The fire was rather caused by ‘seen and known’ hands that decided to store such flammable mixture near an ignition source.

4. Control of growth and effects of fire: This set of measures is at the bottom of the hierarchy and involves, among others, some of the following:

* Installation of smoke alarms to warn of and detect fire in a timely manner.

* Suppressing the growth of the fire by installing sprinklers to douse fires;

* Limiting the spread of smoke by sealing all openings through room boundaries and limiting the spread of the fire by using fireproofed compartment boundaries (i.e. floors, roofs, walls);

* Providing escape routes with fireproofed boundaries to help occupants escape and to permit access by fire fighters; and of course

* Fire fighting, which involves the use of fire extinguishers if the fire is small and safe to put out; and intervention by the fire brigade otherwise.
What I have shown above is that if we are to stay safe from fires, measures that provide defence in depth are required.

The recent spate of fire outbreaks shows that we have not learnt from previous ones and it is disappointing that the government, led by the President is pouncing on the less demanding and convenient excuse of arson. Even if they are caused by arsonists, instituting preventive measures will mitigate some of the effects. I am therefore appealing to the government to task the Fire Service to carry out fire audits in all markets and places of assembly. Such audits should not be limited to only inspecting that there are fire extinguishers in these places but it should be comprehensive to address all the issues raised above. The findings should result in guidelines for market managers and occupants.

The government should carry out public education on a grand scale with adverts on radio/TV and bill boards as well as leafleting. This is where the Information Ministry should come in and not the misguided notion that the ministry is there to defend a particular party in government.

We have been fortunate so far that we have not experienced any fatalities. However, if we do not treat this issue seriously, we may live one day to rue that we ignored the causes staring us in the face.