It was a few minutes after midnight on one Saturday night when a house in my neighbourhood caught fire.
The news spread out quickly and almost everyone in the neighbourhood woke up and helped in putting off the fire. Some people called the fire brigade while others called the Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Tanesco).
Luckily, the two did not take long to get to the scene. Tanesco people came first and disconnected the power from the burning house.
The fire fighters arrived a while later. They helped extinguish the fire although nothing could be saved from the house. But at least they saved the house from being reduced to ashes and the other houses from catching fire.
For the first time that night, I did not hear anyone accusing the fire fighters of getting to the scene late. We all know how people blame them every time there is a fire in Dar. They are normally accused of either arriving late or getting to the scene without water to put off the fire. People go as far as throwing stones at the fire fighters in fury. A fire vehicle’s window was smashed in Dodoma two years ago and two firefighters were stoned in Sinza some years back.
Fikiri Salla, Assistant Commissioner of Fire, says they endure a lot of criticism from the public. But he says he can’t blame them because that’s their thinking.
Salla says what people don’t understand is “how the fire department works.” Sometimes those who throw stones at us are normally at the scene to steal. The arrival of the fire fighters therefore interferes with their plans to steal. “They normally do so to frustrate us,” Salla says.
Although people blame the fire fighters for not responding quickly during fire break outs, Salla says people usually don’t alert them promptly. This he says is because people don’t understand what to do when a fire breaks out. Salla calls upon the public to always dial 114 immediately they detect fire. He, however, cautions those who misuse the number to stop, saying some people hold the line for a long time denying access to those who genuinely need assistance.
“People tend to save property first and only call us when things get out of hand. Fire is normally undetectable when it starts and when people finally notice it, it’s always too late,” says Salla.
He says a fire could start and take twenty minutes without being detected. When people find out there is a fire, they take at least five minutes to inform the fire brigade.
It takes only two minutes for the first fire vehicle to get on the road when the fire brigade is informed of a fire break out. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean they would get to the scene on time. It normally depends on factors such as location, the type of road and traffic jam among others.
According to Salla, twenty minutes are enough for everything to be gutted down by fire in a single room, “given the nature of our furniture”. It also normally takes thirty minutes for a whole house to get burnt completely.
“So what we normally do is to go save neighbouring houses from damage,” says Salla. He says depending on the location, sometimes the fire vehicle’s get caught up in traffic.
Getting to Tegeta, which is between 25 to 35 kilometres and only a 15 minutes drive from the city centre, for example, would take between 45 to 50 minutes drive during peak hours.
A few years back when the population of Dar es Salaam was still small, Salla says motorists used to make way for the fire vehicles when they heard sirens. Today its difficult getting anywhere on time during heavy traffic.
Kigamboni is so close to the Central Business District but sometimes getting there during a fire emergency could be challenging too. Salla says the fire vehicles could arrive at ferry and find the pontoon on the Kigamboni side. Unlike in the past where the fire people used to be given priority during emergencies, today they have non choice but to wait until it returns when they miss it.
The timing solution here seems to be having more fire stations out of town. The government, according to Salla is working on improving the shortcomings. He says improvements shall be seen in five years.
The government plans to build seven new fire stations in Tegeta or Mbezi, Mbezi Louis, Tabata, Mbagala, Gongo la Mboto, Mwenge and Kigamboni.
These will help reduce response time during fires. Construction of the centres will commence as soon as land is acquired, hopefully in this financial year.
“We hope to start construction in the next budget,” says Salla.
On the claims that fire don’t respond quickly in emergencies, the fire boss had this to say; “Is it possible that we would drive vehicles all the way from here (his office) to just come look at the fire and go back to get water?”
He says sometimes the water they may have brought with them may not be enough depending on the intensity of the fire. So when some people see the fire vehicle leaving to get more water, they tend to think fire had arrived without water which has never been the case.
Water is one of the challenges the force is currently facing. Many areas in Dar es Salaam have no fire hydrants where water for putting out fire is stored. Dar es Salaam has only 1,268 fire hydrants, of which only 74 were working in 2003 when the fire brigade inspected them last.
The force is also marred by inadequate fire fighting equipment, especially vehicles. The 15 trucks they have are not enough for the force’s seven centres. At least four vehicles for each centre would make things easier.
“We need water bowsers because we don’t have water hydrants at the moment,” says Salla. Hydrants in many areas are connected to Dar es Salaam Water Supply Company (Dawasco) pipes. These lack water whenever there is no water.
Poor planning in many areas of the city is another challenge fire faces. Salla says more than 70 per cent of people in Dar es Salaam live in unplanned areas with narrow impassable roads and with no street names. Salla says some people encroach planned areas and build their houses there which makes it difficult for vehicles to pass.
“It’s always a challenge locating an area in unplanned settlements when there is a fire. What we normally do in such cases is asking those who called us to meet us at a popular spot,” says Salla.
Sometimes their vehicles get stuck in squatters and when they finally get there, they find people waiting with stones in their hands.
Staff shortage, self contained breathing apparatus, turn out suits and fire fighting gloves are other challenges facing the brigade.
Salla calls upon industry and factory owners as well as the public at large to give the force a helping hand since the operational costs are too high.
For those who ridicule or throw stones at the firefighters, Salla says; “they need to understand the real situation. Because if one can spend hours on their way back home, how do they expect fire to get there on time?”