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Opinions of Thursday, 9 May 2013

Columnist: Adamu, Tanko B.

Fire here, fire there, fire everywhere! Can a Ghanaian be saved?

Please permit me space on your widely visited website to add my voice to the ongoing discussions on market fires in Ghana. I intend to look at it from the perspective of what an individual Ghanaian business owner or homeowner can do to prevent fires and protect their businesses and homes against these them.
As a proud citizen of Ghana, my heart bleeds every time I read about massive fires in Ghana. What even hurts more is the discussion that usually follows these fires. We have too many unqualified people who know next to nothing about fires leading discussions on them. They end up politicizing and misleading everybody on the issues. With the end result being that nobody learns a lesson from it, thereby creating a situation where everybody goes back to their corners only to wait for the next fire. Why is Dr. Alfred Okoe Vanderpuye leading discussions on fires in Accra? Why is the National Fire Service not leading and framing these discussions? Beyond Vandupuye, our country has once again left the problem of dealing with fires to serial callers and party fanatics who know next to nothing about them to lead the discussions once again. Are we as nation interested in solutions? A nation of talkers!
First of all the implications of these fires on the lives of our fellow citizens and our economy does not appear to be lost on anybody. The shop owners that are affected have lost their source of livelihood and this usually is their only source of income with no alternatives available to them. Most of them have no insurance and therefore are probably not going to be able rebuild. The destruction of the wares also means that ordinary shoppers are going to lack the materials they would usually get from these markets. These shortages only lead to a lot of inconvenience and mostly lead to increased cost of these goods even if the shoppers were to get them from elsewhere. For those that have insurance, filing claims only lead to increases in premiums sometimes for everybody with the implication being an increased cost of doing business in the country. Above all these is the loss of income in the form of taxes to the government. I can go on and on and on but I believe readers will know the rest.
So the big question to me is, what can the Ghanaian do to save himself or herself from these fires? To anybody interested, the quest to prevent fires starts at the consideration stage to put up a business or a building. It is at this stage that you decide on the various life safety considerations. Any person looking to set up a business ought to think about what they want to do should there be a fire in the building. The person would have to decide whether they want to let people escape safely and really quickly from the premises or that they will want a system that will slow down the spread of the fire or whether they will want to mount a suppression system. These decisions are usually based on the type of activities the person intends to carry on within the premises and the type of materials that are going to be stored in the premises. For instance where a builder intends to have multiple activities within the same building, they will separate the various sections with things such as fire rated doors and building walls to serve as barriers with materials that are reinforced to have some fire resistance ratings. Even different woods burn at different rates and a builder ought to consider what they want to do and select the type of wood to use. Also depending on what is going to be stored, a builder would choose a fitting suppression system. They may choose to use a sprinkler system to which there are many options available. Anybody wishing to learn more about these options and considerations can do their own reading but our educators and authorities including Okoe Vanderpuye should educate themselves on these and educate the people they lead.
For businesses that are already up without any life safety considerations educating the occupants on basic fire safety concepts can go a long way to ensure that people do not create situations that could lead to fires. The question now is what are these situations and how can an ordinary business owner or homeowner ensure that his or people are all aware of it and thereby take steps to avoid them? It is all about education. There are qualified people both in Ghana and abroad (Ghanaians, including myself) that can help educate our people. A fire is usually started when three things come together. These are,
(1)Fuel,
(2) Oxygen and
(3) Heat or an ignition source.
Whenever there is fire and you take away one of these components, the fire will quench! So if we want to prevent fires in our businesses including our markets, all we have to do is create a system that will ensure that these three elements of fire are always kept as far apart as possible. It could be as easy as developing a proper storage mechanism for the various elements. In our markets, the store owners can develop their individual mechanisms to keep their individual units safe from fires. Authorities through a monthly inspection system of stalls or stores can enforce this. It could actually be written into market codes capable of being enforced by the store owners themselves if they can organize themselves.
Success of this program will however depend on knowing what constitutes a fire hazard. We all already know the atmosphere is rich in Oxygen. So really the only things we can control to avoid fires are the fuels and the ignition sources. While I can bore you to death with the various classifications of fuels which then lead to the classification of fires, it will suffice to define a fuel as any material that can support or sustain a fire. These range from ordinary cardboard or paper to cooking oils and some metals. It goes without saying that petroleum products are the fuels that we will need to watch out for at Ghanaian businesses and markets. So to be successful at ensuring that even when we have these fuels at our businesses and markets they do not lead to fires, people have to develop proper storage systems and ensure that anything considered to be a fuel is stored in locations where they do not risk coming into contact with an ignition source. Using flammable storage cabinets can go a long way to ensure that fuels and other flammable chemicals are properly stored. There are other fire proofs or fire rated storage units that can be purchased and used to store materials that can serve as fuels during fires.
Ignition sources are the materials, processes or events that can cause fire. Examples include open flames, sparks, static electricity and hot surfaces. Any of these processes can be started at any time by our everyday activities. People who smoke can easily provide an ignition source when they throw the butts of their cigarettes away. Lighters and candles are also easy sources of ignitions as well as overloaded electrical circuit boards or even malfunctioning electrical equipment or machines. For people interested in preventing fires at their businesses, they will develop a culture of maintenance for their equipment and machines to ensure that a malfunctioning one is not left in service to cause them unexpected mayhem. They will also have designated smoking locations at their premises for people who smoke to do so and neatly dispose off the butts of their smokes preferably in a designated container. These are the little things we can do at our individual levels as well as within our businesses and communities to ensure that we are constantly on the lookout to prevent fires.
Where we are unable to prevent fires from occurring, we should be adequately prepared to respond when they occur. One easy way to do this is to equip our businesses and homes with portable fire extinguishers that should be used when the fire starts and is at the incipient stage. Portable fire extinguishers cannot be used in fires that are beyond the incipient stage. It is actually not safe. It is important to ensure that you select the right extinguishers for the fire classification that is likely to occur at your business or home. Engaging a person with knowledge of fires will be your easiest way to guarantee that you have the right extinguishers ready for use when you have a situation. Once you have your extinguishers selected, you will need to ensure that they are regularly inspected and ready and available for use when needed. People that are likely to use portable fire extinguishers should be trained on when and how to use them.
The purpose for writing this article is to provide some useful contribution to the discussion that is ongoing about fires in Ghana after the Kantamanto Market Fire. For people that are looking to inform themselves on the concept of fire and how they can protect themselves and their businesses, this will be a useful article. It will however be disappointing for those that are looking to blame others. I hope and pray that this becomes a conversation starter as well as a reference point for people that will be interested in assisting others prevent fires.
Thanks a lot for the space on your website.
Tanko B. Adamu, ASP
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
The writer is a practicing Ghanaian occupational health and safety professional in the United States that is willing to share his knowledge and experience with interested organizations in Ghana. He can be reached at tankobalik@yahoo.co.uk