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September 22, 2018

[VIDEO] School arsons: Fire experts say problem could be poor solutions

Fireman tosses a ball into a fire during a demonstration on Thika Road / VICTOR IMBOTO
Fireman tosses a ball into a fire during a demonstration on Thika Road / VICTOR IMBOTO

Picture this: About 50 form one students are trapped behind grilled windows and a blocked exit in a school dormitory at night.

A group of form two students spills petrol on the staircase and the exit before igniting the petrol using a lighter. They then vanish into the darkness.

The orange-red monster blaze tears through the wooden door and blocks the exit. There is a grim chance all the students yelling inside will choke from smoke inhalation then scorch to death.

The teacher on duty unsuccessfully dials countless emergency numbers from his phone to request a fire engine, which might arrive too late.

Within a minute, one sharp explosion goes off, then another, and another. Then silence.

The teacher peers through the window of his house in the school compound.

The fire is gone. There is total darkness, save for black smoke that’s barely visible in the darkness. Then all the trapped students rush outside.

“Crazy?” asks Jimmy Kuria? “School fires are happening daily, dormitories are being razed to the ground, and it’s only time before we have, God forbid, deaths.”

The fire ball / VICTOR IMBOTO

The three explosions come from three self-detonating fireballs the school management had placed strategically near the dormitory exits.

“You can think of them as a grenade in reverse — when you throw the Elide Fire Ball into the flames, it creates an explosion that actually puts out the fire.”

BETTER THAN EXTINGUISHERS

Fire control experts are now advising schools and families to invest in different firefighting equipment, rather than rely on the traditional portable fire extinguishers alone.

Jimmy says most traditional extinguishers burn along with the buildings they are supposed to protect. And to use them, you would actually have to walk directly towards the fire.

“Probably not what your instinct would tell you to do,” Jimmy says. He adds that most ordinary people cannot operate fire-extinguishing equipment when facing a real fire.

This is true in the above hypothetical burning dormitory, and in reality, for the more than 40 schools burnt in this second term.

Jimmy Kuria, CEO Elide fire demonstrates how fireball works. / VICTOR IMBOTO

Jimmy operates the Lamiguela Hotel in Nairobi’s Ruaka estate. In 2016, a night fire damaged a large part of the hotel.

“We called in a fire engine and it arrived hours late. In total, damages exceeded Sh2 million,” he says.

The hotel was fitted with fire extinguishers but some had not been serviced and the staff ran away from the blaze instead of trying to put it out.

“So it hit my mind, how can we get a cheap fire extinguisher? I did my research and the best suited were the fireballs,” he says.

Jimmy now considers himself Kenya’s foremost fireball advocate. He travelled to Thailand last year to meet with Phanawatnan Kaimart, the Thai scientist who invented the Elide Fire Extinguishing Ball (or fireball) after he survived the 1997 Royal Jomtien Resort Hotel fire, which killed nearly 100 people.

HOW IT WORKS

There are two ways of using it. One is just throwing the ball into the blaze when fire breaks out.

“Within about 10 seconds, the fireball detonates and the chemical powder inside disperses and puts out fire over an area of eight to 10 square metres,” he says.

You can also place it in places with fire risk, such as above power switches, in kitchens or above overloaded sockets.

 “When a fire breaks out, it will detonate itself within three to 10 seconds and put out the fire, it makes a loud noise as a form of alarm,” he says. “There is no mechanical operations, training or special skills that you need.”

The ball is composed of a lightweight casing of rigid plastic foam. Inside there is a detonator and fire-retardant chemical agents.

The ball puts out the fire during a demonstration in Ruaraka on Thika Road / VICTOR IMBOTO

It is half the size of a soccer ball and weighs about 1.5kg. “The shelf life of the product is five years, during which no inspection or maintenance is required.” The traditional extinguishers must be serviced every year.

Kahi Indimuli, chairman of the Kenya Secondary School Headteachers’ Association, urges the Education ministry to include fireballs in their fire safety recommendation for schools.

Currently, schools are forced to use the traditional extinguishers, which some see as clunky and inefficient. Kahi says they are also expensive to procure.

The cheapest is a nine-litre water-based fire extinguisher that goes for Sh5,000. The five-kilogramme carbon dioxide extinguisher costs at least Sh8,000.

Schools must also train students and staff on operations. “It’s an extra expenditure because the cost involved is higher than the normal vote head. Take for instance, a boarding school with nine streams. You will need to buy many cylinders and conduct drills once a term for the entire school community,” he says.

Currently, the ministry advises schools to buy four types of fire cylinders. Each is used to put out a different class of fire.

Class A fire involves flammable solids and is best put out by removing heat, for instance, by pouring cold water on the burning solid matter.

Class B fire involves flammable liquids like petrol and cooking oil, and is put out by removing oxygen by smothering. This can be achieved by using chemical foam, fire blanket, dry powder or dry sand.

Class C fires are caused by flammable gases, such as methane and LPG, and can be put out using chemical foam to smother the fire.

Class D, from flammable metals such as magnesium, lithium, calcium and aluminium, is extinguished by removing oxygen through smothering.

“That means for laboratories, we install powder-based extinguishers, in kitchens, water-based, and in dormitories, we can install all types,” Kahi says.

Jimmy explains that alternative firefighting equipment should not replace but complement the traditional extinguishers.

Firefighters say the lack of training and proper equipment are the major problems affecting the country.

FEW FIREFIGHTERS

Anne Mwangi, CEO of the Association of Fire Protection Industry Stakeholders, urges the state to create an oversight body to advise on fire-related issues.

“Things are done without a plan, roles are duplicated in most government ministries, and this lack of cohesion is why fires are causing so much damage,” Mwangi told the Star.

Currently, there are 912 fire brigadiers countrywide and inadequate fire stations, according to the Kenya National Fire Brigades Association secretary general Francis Liech.

Going by a population of 45 million Kenyans, it means one fire brigadier protects at least 49,342 Kenyans.

Of the total 912 firefighters, 120 are based in Nairobi, 110 in Mombasa, 19 in Kisumu, 20 in Nakuru, with the other major towns having at most five brigadiers. Nairobi has only two major fire stations, one on Tom Mboya Street and the other in Industrial Area.

Limuru fire brigade puts out a fire that gutted the administration block of Furaha Primary School in Limuru constituency / FILE

 “In the remaining counties, most firefighters operate from the county government, and most of them operate with no budget,” Liech adds.

“We need to empower young people to take up courses on fire management, as the current number of fire brigadiers is so low.”

In 2014, the Senate passed the County Government Disaster Management Bill to help firefighting in Kenya. The bill, prepared by the Kenya Law Reform Commission, was then taken to the National Assembly, where it is still languishing.

Liech says the bill would improve governance of the fire protection sector. He says Kenya requires at least Sh3 billion to run firefighting services every year. 

Liech advises schools to also install alternative firefighting equipment like fireballs, which need no training.

He says schools and other institutions unnecessarily suffer huge losses because most people cannot operate the traditional firefighting equipment. 

“Most students and school matrons have little or no idea how to act in case of a fire break out,” he says. 

The association also wants the Education ministry to include fire safety in the curriculum and establish an institute to train firefighters.

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