7 August 2006

Kenya: Fire Tragedies in Schools Seem to Increase by the Day

Nairobi — One early morning, last month, students burnt down a dormitory and destroyed property at Kilifi's Dzitsoni Secondary School. Before the incident, students had complained about congestion in the dorms and lack of water and power due to unpaid bills.

A month earlier there were many incidents where fire razed dorms, laboratories, dining halls and other property worth millions of shillings. In May this year, two pupils died after a fire broke out at Baringo's Kituro Primary School while they were asleep. Government statistics estimate the cost of school fires since 2000 to be Sh650 million.

Seventy five per cent were started during strikes . A few were blamed on electrical faults or unknown arsonists.

This situation has prompted the Government to give Sh180m to all 717 provincial boarding schools to purchase fire-fighting equipment.

"There have been many incidents of fire in our schools. We should ensure this situation is put to an end," the director of education, Mr David Siele, said in June.

Provincial schools were selected because they have a high population density and boarding facilities, says Mr Japheth Odhiambo, the Uasin-Gishu District Education Officer. He says national schools were left out because they had received similar funds in the past while districts institutions were left out because they are mostly day schools.

But the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Uasin-Gishu Branch executive secretary, Sammy Bor, says the Government should have covered all public primary and secondary schools. "We should not just think of boarding schools. Even day schools require fire extinguishers in their laboratories and kitchens," he says.

In 2001 the Education ministry issued fire safety guidelines following a ghastly fire incident at Machakos' Kyanguli Mixed Secondary School where 68 students lost their lives.

They require schools to have fire extinguishers and in cases where they cannot afford, buckets of sand to be placed in strategic points in the dormitories. Schools were instructed to remove grills from windows, ensure doors open outwards and are never locked from outside. Students were also to be taught fire fighting skills.

A survey by Education shows the guidelines have been ignored by a majority of schools. Most schools in Mombasa are not prepared to deal with fire outbreaks.

Quality Assurance and Standards officer, John Malombe, says a majority of Mombasa boarding schools have old fire extinguishers, which have not been serviced for many years.

"Many schools do not even put buckets of sand in strategic positions as they were advised," he says.

Starehe Boys Centre students take part in a fire drill. The school has a well equipped fire fighting unit. Picture by Martin Mukangu

He suggests that every school should set aside some time in their schedule when they invite fire experts to impart skills that will enable students and staff respond appropriately to fire outbreaks.

Nyando's Ranjira Primary School headmaster, Dick Awuonda, says his school would rely on water in case of a fire outbreak because the institution cannot afford fire extinguishers. Apparently they have never come across the sand rule.

Mr Awuonda says the Public Works ministry recently condemned the school's administration block and ordered it be demolished. "Buying fire equipment when our buildings may crumble anytime may be putting the cart before the horse," he says.

But Mr Maloba says all is not lost. He says some school's have taken fire safety measures. He believes this is why although school fires are more frequent, they rarely result in death or serious injuries like what happened at Bombululu Girls eight years ago when 26 students died. Some people argue that the fact that the Government is yet to make public findings of the commission of inquiry on the incident is an indication that the issue is being treated lightly.

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