News Column

Prison Fires Could Be a Sign of Bigger Problem, Expert Warns

July 10, 2014

James Karuhanga

Following two fire incidents at two prison facilities within a month, an expert has warned that the fires cannot be treated as isolated incidents and that they must be comprehensively tackled.

The latest incident occurred yesterday as fire razed parts of Quartier Mateus in the Kigali Central Business District.

On Monday, fire outbreak in Rubavu Prison left five people dead and 40 others injured. The other fire outbreak, last month, gutted Muhanga Prison.

Ignatius Mugabo, the manager of Mugolds International Fire Risk Management Ltd, said he has previously addressed issues of fire safety in public facilities, but that his counsel has not been heeded.

"Yesterday, it was schools, today it might be prisons, and tomorrow it might be others. Why not look at fire safety comprehensively? The situation of fire safety in the country is dire; the public need to understand that when a country is developing fast, like in the case for Rwanda, fire cases increase."

He said government needs to look at the state of fire safety in its entirety, carry out a comprehensive audit, and then put in place stringent safety measures.

Mugabo said nearly all buildings in the City of Kigali do not have a proper fire safety system.

Chantal Atukunda, the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS) communications manager, said fire safety standards are now available and the bureau has embarked on a public awareness campaign.

Atukunda said: "Last year, we visited construction sites, telling them about fire safety standards - what we have and what is required of them. And, people are free to visit us for information."

However, Mugabo said such a campaign alone is not enough as these standards must be enforced.

"The government inspectors must step in to force people to take fire safety seriously," he said.

On the safety of prisons, Anastase Nabahire, the spokesperson of Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS), said the institution has been "doing its best" when constructing and renewing facilities.

However, he cautioned that only the final outcome of ongoing investigations can shed light on the cause of the two incidents.

Search revelations:

Mid last month, security organs mounted an impromptu cordon and search operation at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali (1930) and unearthed an assortment of contraband, including local brew, match boxes and foodstuffs, which Police spokesperson Damas Gatare told reporters can be a threat.

The prison currently has about 3,200 inmates. Speaking to reporters on June 14, Gatare said prisoners are not allowed to bring in such material.

Nabahire acknowledged that it could also be due to "indiscipline by some staff" who could be contributing to slackness in security that allows unwanted material into prisons.

"We are seriously fighting this practice; many members of our staff have been reprimanded. But let's not speculate, let's wait for the result of investigations on the cause of the fires," Nabahire said.

High risk:

Mugabo said prisons, like schools and other facilities with many people, are "high risk areas."

"The recent case is critical, with reported deaths and injuries, and it won't be the last case. Fire safety in such areas should be tight," Mugabo added.

"Staff awareness is important so that they know what to do in case of a fire outbreak. Staff should then be given appropriate equipment so that they can even put out fires without calling in fire fighters."

The expert said a fire safety audit would examine the premises to ascertain how they are managed.

Inspectors talk to staff regarding awareness and, may ask to see documents as evidence of a sufficient fire risk assessment by a competent person.

They also look for action plans related to significant findings of the fire risk assessment; emergency plans for what to do in the event of a fire; preventative and protective measures; as well as staff information on fire safety.

"It is aimed at enabling planners know the real situation and find proper remedies," Mugabo said, adding that besides assuring safety of life and property, fire safety standards are an incentive because insurance firms consider a discount for a premise with safety measures.

If a building is not fire-protected, the insurance provider would take a higher risk, and the premium would be higher.

He said insurance service providers should advise clients about fire protection.

"Here, they don't; they just take money from clients, in most cases even those with adequate fire protection are overcharged in insurance premiums."

Only a few public and private facilities such as the central bank, Nakumatt, and Inyange Industries have put in place fire safety measures.

Nakumatt Rwanda manager Adan Ramata said they service their fire equipment in time and regularly; and all their employees are appropriately "trained fire marshals."

"Since we are also ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) certified by RBS, we follow all fire safety procedures," Ramata said.

Last month, lawmakers questioned the Minister for Internal Security, Sheikh Musa Fazil Harelimana, over inadequate firefighting equipment in the country. The members of the Standing Committee on Budget and National Patrimony regarded the matter as a big security concern.

They particularly could not fathom how, in case of a fire upcountry, fire fighter trucks have to be dispatched from Kigali.

Minister Harelimana said procurement of more trucks was ongoing to enable decentralisation at provincial headquarters.

On Tuesday, Inspector General of Police Emmanuel Gasana said the Force is in the process to acquire six other fire-fighter trucks in the next three months.

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Source: AllAfrica

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