In 1934 the Addis Ababa City Fire, Emergency Prevention and Rescue Agency was formed as the fire extinguishing services corporation. Now it has 33 ambulances, 33 fire trucks and eight branches.
Nigatu Mamao was a fire fighter for five years before he became the public relations officer for the agency. Now he works with the media to raise awareness about fires in the city to save lives.
Reducing the time it take to respond to fires, getting everyone to know the number to call when there is a fire, fire preventions and clearing traffic for emergency vehicles will reduce fatalities and damage. Nigatu is optimistic that the current structure and resources of the agency along with raising awareness will reduce and control fire accidents more effectively thus saving lives. Capital’s Reporter, Tesfaye Getnet sat down with Nigatu to learn more about fighting fires in Addis Ababa.
Capital: Why does it take so long for fire trucks to reach fires, especially when the stakes are so high?
Nigatu Mammo: There are many reasons people don’t call us when there is a fire. They don’t know the phone number or they might actually know the number but think they can handle the situation themselves and try and put it out on their own. Then the fire spreads and it becomes a much bigger problem. For example one time an incident occurred at 3PM but by the time we got the call it was 4 PM so when we got there all the property was damaged and there wasn’t much we could do.
We have eight fire stations and we should be able to reach any location in the city in three to 15 minutes if there is not a traffic jam. Of course during rush hour that time will double because unlike developed countries we don’t have special roads for ambulances and fire trucks. We used to have a lot of turnover at the agency and less resources. However, in July 2013 we restructured the agency and doubled the number of modern trucks and staff and we increased salaries. These management decisions helped us increase morale and competency which helped us better serve the citizens. When fires happen people want you to rescue their lives and property, they want you to get there fast and they don’t want to hear excuses so we are always working to improve.
Capital: How do you handle putting out fires in parts of Addis that are hard to reach?
Nigatu Mammo: The reason this is so challenging is that many houses in Addis Ababa are not constructed with the proper planning, often the less expensive houses are connected to each other and it is hard for people to escape. In addition the types of wood the old houses are made out of make the fire spread more quickly. Sometimes our big trucks cannot get through the narrow or nonexistent roads to extinguish the fire or pot holes block our movement. The more we can replace older homes with planned homes the more we can improve the roads for fire safety.
Capital: Do you think fires are increasing in the city?
Nigatu MammoI: I think it is more important to look at the control mechanisms. If you look at London at least 101 different accidents happen every day but they mange it easily. In Ethiopia where people do not have as much knowledge about what to do and where there is a lot of development taking place and where there has been little planning in some areas the rate of damage is much higher. If you look at the our agency’s quarterly report over 27 million birr of property was damaged by fire and other accidents. Amazingly the number of people who are dying in construction places are increasing due to the poor safety measures done at those sites. More than 80 people have died in the past two years at construction sites. Deep wells left without covers in many construction sites swallows cars or people fall in them and it kills or severely injures them.
Capital: What causes most fires in Addis?
Nigatu Mammo: Ninety percent are from carelessly using electrical outlets. Faulty wiring, electrical appliances, heating gadgets, unattended stoves and gases, not teaching children how to properly handle inflammable materials, among others. Around 10 percent of fires are caused by arson.
Capital: Geographic Information System (GIS) helps to locate fires quickly how close is Ethiopia to using this technology?
Nigatu Mammo: Yes, we have made a lot of progress, Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar Universities completed a study and we are waiting on the city administration to allocate the necessary budget for it. Hopefully we will begin using GPS this fiscal year. This technology will show us the exact location of the fire so we don’t have to waste time running through buildings or shops trying to find it. This will save lives and property. We are not modern ourselves in technology only the, the human recourses are modern, in the past completing 10th grade was enough to be a fire fighter but now we are only accepting people who have a degree and are less than 27 years old. If you look at our trucks, you can see that they have up to date technology for extinguishing fires.
Capital: Most of the time the estimation of amount the damaged property comes from the people who lost their properties so how can this be accurate?
Nigatu Mammo: We do not know the real value of the damaged property because we do not have staff that calculates it. Our agency’s main job is to save lives and properties. Often people exaggerate the damages price when we ask them because they assume that we will pay them. It is best if the house has insurance coverage because a thorough investigation is carried out before insurance pays the claim to the victim.
Capital: More people here probably know the 911 code in the US than Ethiopia’s emergency number 939 why is that?
Nigatu Mammo: We want to do a better job of promoting the code. We have given out thousands of brochures to taxi and bus drivers, we have advertised the code on radio, television and newspapers. The fire, police, electric company, and Red Cross all have their own number so it is difficult for people to remember all of them. It would be better if people could obtain all emergency services by calling one number. We also have a land line number for each district so they can call their local fire number in addition to 939.
Capital: How do you deal with ‘crank calls’ that is people misusing the fire phone number?
Nigatu Mammo: Ninety percent of the 1,500 calls we receive every day are fake. Some people call a thousand times asking us to find them a wife or send them a mobile card. Most of the calls come from the outskirts of Addis Ababa and regional areas. We know the numbers of people who call but it is impossible to round up 1,000 people and send them to jail, instead we are trying to raise awareness about how dangerous this practice is.
Capital: What is being done to respond to a potential earthquake?
Nigatu Mammo: A new institution will be established soon to handle earth quakes and a foreign company is conducting a study and will train first responders in the field.