Urgent need to cultivate high level of disaster preparedness

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BY MACHEL WAIKENDA

There is urgent need to put in place a comprehensive disaster preparedness policy to address overriding urgency in response to emergencies.

Today, we must recognise that while humanitarian efforts are important and in fact require continued attention, reducing risk and vulnerability are crucial to development planning and sustainable growth in Kenya.

The devastating fire that gutted down a huge section of the country’s largest East African aviation hub at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport must serve as an awakening calling instituting drastic changes in institutional, communal and national responses capabilities to emergencies.

We need to reassess the capacity to respond to fire disasters in all national vital installations like hospitals and other essential towering buildings like Kenyatta International Conference Centre and the Kenya Revenue Authority headquarters.

Fundamentally, are there state-of-the art fire engines at our disposal that can extinguish fire to the top floor of these buildings?

Important still is whether the fire fighters are properly trained to operate these engines considering aspects of their remuneration and insurance given the risky nature of their jobs.

It has been witnessed in the past where fire fighters arrive late in insufficient numbers and without enough water, occurrences that tend to prolong the time and effort to reach those affected.

The best example is the Kimathi House fire tragedy that exposed glaring challenges in operating newly bought state-of-the art Nairobi County fire engines that are capable of fighting fires up to the fifth floor.

However, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit at JKIA soon after the inferno razed down the airport is an indication of commitment by the Jubilee Government to address these issues and all patriotic Kenyans should support these efforts.

More importantly, other governments including African heads of states and foreign governments have offered to support his reconstruction efforts.

Commendably, full-scale operations at the airport have been restored even as reconstruction efforts get underway.

A special team should be put in place to assess whether all the vital installations are well equipped with adequate facilities like modern smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and emergency exits to respond to fire and other emergencies.

Recently, there were disturbing reports that CCTV cameras at the CBK have collapsed, begging serious questions as to the condition of other surveillance facilities.

Also, response to high-risk events such as drought, floods, epidemics and major accidents tends to be slow, poorly co-ordinated and unnecessarily expensive. As a result of these policy gaps, most disaster response initiatives tended to be ad hoc and short-term, mainly comprising emergency relief.

These gaps paint a rather grim picture on the level of awareness and our resolve to avert calamities.

In January 2009, 30 people died when a supermarket in downtown Nairobi caught fire, killing scores of people and injuring many more.

In 2006, a five-storey building collapsed in Nairobi killing 14 people and injured100 others with some severely maimed. This saw external aid from Israel that sent 80 search-and-rescue personnel to retrieve people trapped in the rubble.

In 2005, there was widespread drought and starvation drought that left over 3.5 million people in need of relief aide.

Based on worsening climate trends there is urgent need to establish an institutional, policy and legal framework to effectively manage disaster, risk and ratchet up our level preparedness.

Worse still, 70 per cent of buildings outside central Nairobi have unapproved structural plans raising serious queries on the structural stability of these developments countrywide.

The capacity of our hospitals to handle multiple injuries must also be reviewed to form bases of expansion.

Fortunately, though no casualties were reported at JKIA, sharp scrutiny shifts to capacity by Kenyatta National and Referral Hospital to handle emergencies of such magnitude.

These are the basis we need to assess the existing strengths and weakness to improve on. Prior planning in terms of logistics, personnel and infrastructure stands to avert aggravated damage in case of an emergency.

Every nation is confronted with a multiplicity of both human- and nature-induced emergencies but the manner in which these challenges are tackled and the level of preparedness should the real areas of focus.

Inadequate equipment for critical stakeholders for effective preparedness and response is major challenge.

Fire Service Stations are far below the recommended numbers par communities and where they exist they are not properly equipped.

Serious interrogation must also be extended to special formations like the military that are responsible for providing emergency response and support that can reduce loss of lives, safeguard property, ensure safety of civilians and restore normalcy when disasters strike.

However, inadequate education and awareness at the community level is another challenge to disaster management. The need for public enlightenment, advocacy and sensitisation of communities on emergency preparedness and response at the grassroots cannot be over-emphasised.

We should join government towards addressing the underlying causes of communal vulnerability which include poverty, unemployment and marginality that compel a major segment of the social strata to live in unplanned structures along flood plains where they are exposed to annual inundation by flood water.

Devastating effects of floods have been witnessed in Western Kenya and other parts of the country with thousands being displaced every year.

(The writer is the TNA Director of Communications. Twitter @MachelWaikenda)

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