• The fires and other forms of accidents are on the rise, despite the government developing and issuing a Safety Standards Manual for Schools in Kenya in 2008.
• Most schools have no structured approach to fire safety, leave alone a wider health and safety programme.
In the last few years, boarding schools in Kenya have experienced an unprecedented number of fire incidents and accidents.
Apart from school infrastructure being destroyed, the unfortunate injuries and deaths to children have been recorded. Rarely do we ever imagine the permanent psychological injury the surviving youngsters and their parents go through.
Since 1998, there have been several fire incidences in schools across the country with more than 100 deaths recorded. Some of the notable ones include 1998 Bombolulu Girls accident, where 26 students died, the 2001 Kyanguli High School incident that killed 63 students and the recent Moi Girls School, Nairobi, fire, which killed 10.
The fires and other forms of accidents are on the rise, despite the government developing and issuing a Safety Standards Manual for Schools in Kenya in 2008. Its main objective was to create and maintain a safe, secure and caring environment, one that facilitates and enhances quality teaching and learning in all schools in the country.
Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education’s efforts to improve fire safety through such a manual do not seem to have achieved the desired results, at least going by the increased cases of fires and the resulting deaths.
Most schools have no structured approach to fire safety, leave alone a wider health and safety programme. The school community, teachers, support staff and students have no knowledge or basic fire safety awareness.
If you go through the entire education system, there is no subject that exposes learners to either fire safety awareness or a structured approach for tutors to carry out their own risk assessments. The majority of schools never undertake induction or orientation for new students especially on fire safety or other areas of general safety. This is in contrast with the practice in most developed countries, where health and safety are entrenched in the early stages of life.
What most people don’t realise is that not all deaths in a fire situation are caused by burns — some are caused by smoke inhalation. Often, smoke incapacitates so quickly due to its composition of toxic gases. The synthetic materials in the dormitories such as mattresses, mosquito nets plastic basins, etc produce dangerous gases that easily overcome the victims, causing them to lose consciousness.
Some of the common toxic gases such as carbon monoxide can be deadly, even in small quantities, as it quickly replaces oxygen in the bloodstream. Hydrogen cyanide, which results from the burning of plastics, interferes with cellular respiration, leading to loss of consciousness. This explains why otherwise able-bodied persons are not able to pull themselves out in a rapidly burning building as they are incapacitated.
As a best practice, one has a chance of surviving from a fire situation if they evacuate from a burning building within less than three minutes to avoid being caught up in an oxygen deficient environment.
According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, several scenarios play in event of a fire, especially in an enclosed area such as a school dormitory. Scientifically, the atmosphere is 21 per cent oxygen and this is what sustains lives. Drops in levels of oxygen can result into decreased stamina and coordination, impaired coordination, perception, and judgement, breathing problems and even death.
A fire burning in an area with poor ventilation would possibly reduce oxygen levels to less than 15 per cent in three minutes, resulting to decreased stamina and coordination. This explains why many students die in fire accidents.
I particularly remember visiting Bombolulu Girls High School as an investigator a day after the fire Incident and the majority of the dead were cramped at the main exit door, which used to open inwards leading to delayed exit, extensive smoke and hot gases inhalation and subsequent burning and death. The over 26 innocent girls would have lived had there been some basic measures to improve life fire safety.
But what really determines survival, severe injuries or even deaths? Design of a building, building materials used, locations and nature of exits, and basic awareness and training in fire safety, will determine the extent of injuries and even deaths.
Schools and other learning institutions need to conduct a comprehensive fire safety risk assessment to enable them to identify fire hazards and other weaknesses likely to lead to a fire incident. They should also conduct a life fire safety audit indicating all the fire hazards and also conduct fire safety awareness training for the students, teachers and other members of the school community.
The schools should also perform fire drills to identify response in event of fire outbreaks, establish a teaching content for induction on fire safety, and also need to create a mechanism for safety monitoring and regular reviews.
Peter Narangwi is a fellow of the Institute of Risk Management & Government Approved Fire Safety Auditor.