Nakuru County is enhancing its disaster preparedness by revamping its fire fighting services department at a cost of Sh165 million.
Governor Lee Kinyanjui said the upgrade will include putting up an ultra-modern Central Business District fire station within the premises that previously hosted the Old Town Hall Chambers.
“We successfully went through the tendering process and awarded work to a contractor who is expected to complete the works by May next year. Once complete it will be equipped with modern fire-fighting vehicles and communication equipment that will increase the effectiveness of the department,” said the governor.
Kinyanjui further outlined plans for the county to undertake a recruitment exercise of young professional fire fighters.
“We will be carrying out recruitment of professionals to join this department. You cannot be a fire fighter if you are ill-equipped and untrained so we will be looking for people who have their priorities right,” he stated.
That the devolved unit does not have the capacity to respond effectively to fire outbreaks has been an open secret. This has led to loss of lives and destruction of property worth millions of shillings. Years of neglect and lack of investment in firefighting equipment and personnel has rendered Nakuru County resident’s lame ducks every time infernos strike.
The governor affirmed that he would ensure establishment of water hydrants at various points in the County including learning institutions.
While it has been a policy to have all public institutions install hydrants so that fire trucks can easily tap in to put out fires instead of having to carry water, this is not the case in the county.
“Most of the hydrants within the Central Business District and residential estates have either been vandalised or are dysfunctional, forcing trucks to drive kilometers to replenish water whenever fires erupt in the County. We are seriously addressing the issue,” observed Kinyanjui.
Lands and Physical Planning County Executive Committee Member Francis Mwangi said the new facility will be equipped with staff quarters and support staff. It will be manned full time by career firemen.
Fire stations also contain working and living space for the firefighters and support staff especially if the station is occupied full-time by career firefighters.
“Given the experiences we have had recently, this equipment will go a long way in helping us combat problems such as collapsed buildings, fires and floods. The quantity of this equipment that will be fitted at the facility was arrived at after studying Nakuru and determining the needs in terms of management,” he said.
We will be procuring water trucks, fire command vehicles, service vehicles, rapid intervention vehicles, turntable ladders and personal protection equipment sets,” Mwangi explained.
The new CBD fire station will also be fitted with a state of the art alarm system that besides alerting the firefighters on emergencies it will also deploy technology to pinpoint exact locations where emergency response is required.
“The proposed fire station is strategically located for easy access to all building within the CBD. It will also work as backup to the old fire station in Bondeni Estate that was constructed by colonialists,” stated the Lands and Physical Planning County Executive Committee Member.
Currently the firefighting department that comprises of only 23 firefighters for an estimated two million people with only two functional fire engines and one water bowser truck was further crippled when one of its modern fire trucks valued at Sh50 million was razed down during a violent protest at Salgaa on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.
Firemen interviewed said they have been unable to put out most fires because of the poor state of equipment, low water carrying capacity and lack of enough firefighting equipment.
“We cannot do our jobs properly. We simply don’t have an office as well as equipment such as gas masks and firefighting attire. We also lack an operational communication network with the public,” one of the firemen, who sought anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, revealed.
The International standards provide that the ratio of firemen to the public should be 1:400 whilst the scenario in Nakuru County works out to one fireman to 87,000 people. The bad state of affairs in the department have been aggravated by revelations that most of the personnel lack formal training in fire fighting and are employed as casual labourers.
Mwangi stated that 6,000 litre capacity water bowser acts as a fire engine during emergencies.
“We promptly respond to emergencies and disasters. The County has two functional fire engines stationed in Naivasha and Molo Sub-Counties,” he asserted.
The devolved unit he stated has already awarded a tender for the purchase of a fire engine in the current financial year.
“We have improved our fire response time to three minutes. I personally monitored the response time during two fire outbreaks in Langalanga and Nakuru Blankets. We are keen to reduce the response time for better emergency response,” he said.
Most of the firemen interviewed cited low morale, low pay and lack of insurance cover for firefighters, lack of firefighting equipment, staff uniforms and protective gear as the main challenges bedeviling the department
Another firefighter said it was unfortunate they were on the receiving end of the wrath of fire victims for mistakes that are not of their own making.
“We are regularly attacked for not doing our job properly but they don’t understand we are currently using old equipment.
Most people think our services begin and end at extinguishing fires. They do not know that we also help those whose houses have been invaded by swarms of bees and also salvage those who have drowned. All these services need proper equipment and gear such as safety boots and gloves,” said the fireman.
County Chief Fire Officers Japheth Kuria said the department is modernising its operations and training programmes to reflect changing trends and technological advancements.
“A section of our personnel is due for retirement. We are expecting recruitment of a young work force that undergoes rigorous training programmes. With time they will be able to effectively take care of emergencies and disasters in the entire county,” said the county Chief Fire Officer.
The 59 year old Chief Fire Fighter, a skilled fireman who has been in service for a record 40 years indicates that the department once modernized will morph into an Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit, an up to date entity whose mandate will not only be firefighting but also incorporate investigations into causes of fires.
Kuria has been battling infernos since 1980. “I started off in the Armed Forces where I served for seven years and after that, I started fighting fires in Nakuru Municipality,” he reminisced noting that the country has training facilities in only Mombasa and Nairobi.
“Our manpower will be diminished due to impending retirement of several firefighters. We want to encourage young people to train as firefighters. The Country needs to invest in proper training facilities,” he said.
By Anne Mwale /Faith Kemunto