Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Kenya: Fighting Fire in Nairobi With Just One Fire Engine

The growing population of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, seems to be outpacing the capacity of the city's emergency services. The city's fire department is overstretched, and residents are taking steps to fend for themselves.

When houses burn in the Blue Estate neighborhood of Nairobi, anyone can become a firefighter.

There is no fire station, and there are no hydrants. So residents battle the blaze with buckets of water and desperate determination.

And even though the fire department was called in this case, the firefighters were unable to get through the narrow, crowded streets.

That's just the way it is in Nairobi's slums, according to Blue Estate resident Muriuki Wangechi Munyao.

"Access was the problem. They reached with two cars, in fact they reached early before the second room started burning, but they didn't know how they would get inside," he said. "So we cannot say it is anyone's fault, but it is poverty that has made things worse."

To prevent future tragedy, the city is revamping its fire department.

The central station - built in 1906 - has fallen behind the times, and remains drastically understaffed and underequipped. At the moment, Nairboi only has one working fire engine - this one - it holds about 10,000 liters of water, which is good enough to fight a fire for about seven minutes.

But the governor has promised 10 more trucks by the end of the year, and firefighters are hoping that will make a big difference.

Another problem is staff. The fire department has about 105 firefighters for a city of four million, handling at least 30 calls a week - another deficiency the county has promised to improve.

So while they wait for the governor to fulfill his promise, Chief Fire Officer Brian Kisali says the department is training local brigades so citizens can fight fires on their own.

"So really these are our brothers and sisters and we do assist them even though accessibility is a challenge," he said. "We've trained quite a number of teams because prevention is better than cure."

Class is in session in Kibera, where George Madenyi passes on the training he was given by the Nairobi fire department.

He says residents here were put to the test last month, when a fire broke out at a local community center.

"It really helped a lot because like at that scene there, we were rescuing the kids, people were afraid a lot of people didn't want to get near the fire and you know when you don't want to get near the fire, no one will help, and when no one will help it will get worse, so I can say we really gained something out of the training," he said.

The residents are diligent about practicing the drills, knowing full well that when the next fire comes, their lives will be in their own hands.

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