These are some of the common headlines we read and listened to last year in the media. In Ghana, the Fire Service attends to more than 4, 000 fire outbreaks every year. Of this number, last year, 28 fires were recorded in our markets. These fires killed more than six people and about 600 were injured.
Fire kills, injures and causes damage to property, and it can also have significant negative and adverse effects on the future of companies and businesses. It is also estimated that 60 per cent of businesses that have suffered serious fire damage failed to recover and, thus, ceased trading within five years.
The Kantamanto fire, which occurred on May 5, 2013, was just one of the numerous unprecedented, incomprehensible but preventable fires that occurred in that very month. In Accra alone, it was one of the seven market fire outbreaks in the month of May, 2013.
The Fire Master Control (FMC) received the first distress call at 4.45 a.m and, as usual, the nearest fire station, Accra City Fire Station, was deployed. At exactly 4.46 a.m, a dual-purpose tender with Registration number FS 537 was despatched to the scene. The tender meandered its way and arrived close to the Liberty Avenue branch of the Ghana Commercial Bank but could not go any further. Why? No way!
Inaccessibility is the word! The duty officer should be commended for a good job done. He called for assistance even before getting to the scene after assessing the level of the fire and its intensity from a distance.
Six additional fire engines were deployed from the Fire Service Headquarters, Dansoman Fire Station, STC Industrial Area Fire Station, Korle Bu Fire Station and Trade Fair Fire Station; other equipment that were brought included the mighty turntable ladder to assist in fighting the huge, uncompromising inferno from a height because of lack of accessibility. The best technical and tactical option was to engage a firefighting helicopter.
Once again, it dawned on us that the Fire Service had got to an era where helicopters or aero fire engines were highly and urgently needed for effective firefighting.
In the absence of the foregoing hi-tech devices, our team had to improvise. They got to work, maximising every tool and every technique they could think of.
As if it was God’s plan to destroy this market, the wind was at its peak fanning and aiding the spread of the fire to all directions.
The Kantamanto fire outbreak serves as a test case to examine the preparedness, coordination, command and control status of all stakeholders vis-a-vis the Fire Service, the Police Service, the Military, National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO), National Security, Electricity Company of Ghana and others.
Attitude of public
The uncompromising behaviour of the traders and others who attempted to salvage their wares or use the opportunity to loot during the fire- fighting put both the Police Service and the Fire Service to a hectic task. We must understand that any time there is fire outbreak, these traders need to create an enabling atmosphere for firefighting and also to prevent looting.
It was, therefore, uncalled for and pointless for them to have hurled stones and unprintable invectives at the security services in the course of their duty to save their (traders) property from the fire and looting. The insults hurled at the fire fighters for what the public deemed unprofessional approach to the fire fighting could not be placed in print.
It is advisable, in such disasters, to always appreciate and allow these professionals to discharge their duties without any external interference. Nevertheless, the Police, assisted by the Military, managed to restore order with its concomitant serene atmosphere conducive only for firefighting. That notwithstanding, the insults and stone-throwing at the security forces on hand continued.
The ravaging fire was fought for three days. The few minutes after the arrival of the firemen were actually used to control the fire from spreading to other unaffected adjoining facilities such as the Ghana Commercial Bank and other stores within the fire zone.
The fire, which seemed unquenchable, was finally extinguished at 10 a.m. on the third day after it was brought under control on the second day.
Different opinions were raised from various categories of people including politicians, religious leaders, spiritualists, professionals and non-professionals, all in an attempt to satisfy their interest on the cause(s) of the fire. All of these failed to address what the possible causes could be. Some were of the view that a helicopter that night sprayed an accelerant on the whole market few minutes before the fire gutted the market while others concluded that it was a punishment from God for our sins.
Causes of fire
Any fire outbreak is an indirect result of one or two of the above. However, to determine the cause of the Katamanto market fire, one needs to examine the safety standard and preventable measures put in place.
What, for example, is the state of our markets? Are they built to meet the safety standards to prevent fire outbreaks? Do we have a maintenance culture in Ghana? Are the laws and bye-laws effective? Are they enforced? These are few of the numerous questions about the causes of perennial market fires in Ghana. We all have a big role to play as individuals and as groups of people who are ready to contribute to the growth and development of our national economy.
Who are the stakeholders?
Most of our markets are not designed and built to meet any safety standards. They are formed. Katamanto Market, for example, is one of those markets that was formed. Today, one person starts selling on a table, the next day, another joins, then a market is formed. Definitely, this market would not meet any safety standards; that was how the Kantamanto market came into being. So, from the word go, the market was prone to fire outbreaks. We need to design our markets with safety in mind. Let’s enact suitable laws to meet the modern trend of the situation. Let us enforce the bye-laws and let them work.
Markets used as dwelling places
According to the dictionary, markets are open spaces or buildings where goods are bought and sold, not dwelling places. Today, our markets have been turned into dwelling places. In the night, they cook- chop bars and drinking spots are operated therein. Who knows how these kitchen fires are disposed of how smokers dispose of their cigarettes etc?
Are mosquito coils and candles not being used in our markets? How do they use them? Do they put safety measures in place? Certainly, not.
What is happening to our overaged electrical wires and cables, loose and hanging electrical wires on our markets? The illegal electrical connections go on with reckless abandon and electrical gadgets are left unattended to overnight. Who is responsible for all these?
Individual traders must be educated on the use and care of all electrical gadgets in their shops/stores; they must regularly seek the advice of fire professionals and change worn-out cables/electrical fittings.
Again, there must be regular fumigation of all trade premises to rid these places of cable-eating, destructive rodents.
How to prevent fire disaster
Market fires are preventable. It is important that all our markets are redesigned to include fire alleys and gangways to ensure accessibility in case of emergencies. We should ensure that fire posts are part of the markets to ensure rapid intervention.
Our markets are without fire hydrants; we need to provide adequate water sources such as hydrants, boreholes, underground tanks for firefighting. Directional signs should be provided to direct both customers and traders to exits during emergency.
Finally, we should ensure strict adherence to the bye-laws, total segregation of highly flammable substances. Let us have a designated area for cooking in the market. Chop bars and drinking spots should be prevented from operating after the close of the market. Markets are not dwelling places.