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Opinions Sun, 16 Jun 2013

Wailing-Crying-Fire-Pray-to-God-for-Fire-for-Enemies!

"... Former President Jerry Rawlings, explaining why he was late to an important meeting, said that while he was taking a bath, the Ghana Water Service cut the water supply to the residence, as usual. That was long before the Rawlings fire... Consider also that there have been reports where the Ghana Electricity Corporation itself could not get their trucks to disabled/burned electrical sub-stations because roads were not paved/all-weather... And so, at this point, our critical thinking skills, naturally bounded by our education, training, and professional work experience, allow us to observe that the findings of the US security experts for this fire safety problem in the markets and shops of Accra and Kumasi...are pretty predictable", (Prof Lungu, 14 June 13).

In the on-going back-and-forth about who/why/when/what is responsible for what appears to be an epidemic of fires in Ghana's major cities, Accra and Kumasi in particular, we've seen and read about all manner of responses on the ground and in the media, except we've not seen Accra city manager cry in public, Iran-political-leader-style.

Then on 5 June we read the patently comical story on Ghanaweb featuring Mr. Nii Lantey Vanderpuye, MP for Odododiodio. Mr. Vanderpuye wished "God rain down 'fire and brimstone' on the arsonists responsible for the fires" in Accra. As reported, "'six fires in one month, all at night', was not "natural." Therefore, "God should punish all those people one by one. God should expose them....some people are out there to sabotage our government and create uneasiness, fear and panic among the public..." The MP called on the security services to step up efforts to arrest the culprits as soon as possible.

Maybe we could gloss over Mr. Vanderpuije's response, being the politician he is. But Mr. Vanderpuije's is also the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry. Seems to us the Minister was practically sabotaging the exercise of common sense in communicating substantive matters to the public. As a result, he neglected to focus on policy informed by the background of history, science, technology, and rudimentary urban planning even. We find a serious lack of willingness to think through the issues and provide practical solutions to address what is clearly a serious public safety issue, but one of many.

Forget that as more people utilize electrical equipment without corresponding fire safety education, equipment and infrastructure, fire hazards and fires are what can expect to get.

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Forget that even if one or more of the fires were set by arsonists for even political/sabotage reasons, the inability of the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) to arrive on time to effectively "fight the fire" is the other half of the equation that also would deserves some "wailing-and-crying" while we are at it. Or better yet, we could fast-track public policy to better train, equip, fund, and properly supervise GNFS personnel to do precisely what they are paid to do.

Forget that markets, shops, and many residential areas were not planned with fire safety in mind.

Forget also that construction that does not have sturdy exterior/interior walls, shops and dwelling with very high number of people per square-feet (building density), lack of compartmentalization and fire walls to isolate areas, comingling of property with sharply different fire hazard ratings, impossible/poor vehicular circulation patterns and lack of access to market sites, lack of properly functioning fire hydrants and water/reservoirs, all of these contribute to fire hazards and compromised safety for people and property, Accra to Kumasi, to Zvarungu, to all point in between.

Therefore, we were a bit amused when we learned that Mr. Mahama had, without fanfare and public knowledge, commissioned "security experts" from the US to help Ghana get to the bottom of the fire menace.

For, we've always known that fire hazards do not constitute security/force issues, requiring investigation by "security" personnel. That is, unless you probably have a pre-determined conclusion.

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From our vantage position, the need for a non-indigenous task force probably ought to have been publicly discussed, including funding and other "study" modalities. After all, the US experts did not arrive to work in a vacuum. Even as we write this piece, a Daily Graphic-sourced report on Ghanaweb 15 June provides a national perspective on fire outbreaks in Ghana and, pointedly, some "old" solutions from the GNFS. Reportedly, we are to believe that there were "2,201 fire outbreaks nationwide between January and April this year" that resulted in the death of 18 people, injury to 19 people, and approx. GHc16 million in property damage. GNFS-proposed solutions include "water hydrants...at the markets, including underground water...(and)... Warning systems...visible to alert the public to fire outbreaks." Needless to say the US experts must be guided and informed by a multitude of Ghanaian public servants, among them GNFS personnel. They will interact with ordinary citizens in the streets. Crucially, US fire safety protocols from state-to-state, property infrastructure conditions and levels of service, zoning codes, and land use planning practices are radically different from Ghana's.

Consider common street addresses and maps, response-time fire safety maps in this case!

Therefore, it seems to us Ghana's case is a lot more like the problems found in Indian and Philippino cities, for instance, compared to the US experience, history included. These non-US cities and histories tend to have a common base of poor infrastructure, poor vehicular and pedestrian circulation patterns, and lack of attention to building codes and rudimentary urban planning practices, among other problems.

From our cursory reading of the literature, few, if any, of the numerous fires in public areas in urban India and the Philippines were politically motivated. Rather, they are either accidents or arson/fraud to acquire land/property, via property insurance claims, or what we will call here "constructive-eviction-on-steroids." In the Philippines for instance, fire inspectors are so good at catching fraudsters inclined to torch property for possession/repossession of land and other "profits". Therefore. on occasions, the fraudsters will drench rats in gasoline and set them on fire, causing the poor animals to light up furnishing and other structures they come into contact. No political motives here. Even so, all such fire "outbreaks" are compounded by lack of fire fighting/prevention personnel, lack of proper equipment, and late arrival to "fire sites." When all is said and done, it all boils down to the levels of service government and municipal authorities provide now, and the serious plans they have to improve upon those in the mid- to long-term.

And so, at this point, our critical thinking skills, naturally bounded by our education, training, and professional work experience, allow us to observe that the findings of the US security experts for this fire safety problem in the markets and shops of Accra and Kumasi, and in any other place the team may visit, are pretty predictable. (In fact, some the important solutions are in the 20-odd-year Accra Fire Safety Study, stupid!).

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To the extent precious little in the urban context is new, most of the solutions to the "fire hazard" problem are contained in that Accra report and several solutions interspersed in this essay, to include the latest from the GNFS. Those solutions provide justification for policy and mitigation actions through programming, funding, implementation and recurrent evaluation.

Yet, not Mr. Rawlings and his PNDC, not the Mayor of Accra (Alfred Okoe Vanderpuije), not for Odododiodio MP Mr. Vanderpuye, nobody in the erstwhile NPP government, nobody in the today's NDC government, not Mr. Mahama, etc., showed/have shown an preponderant inclination to faithfully address these in calm, rational, fact-based, and collaborative manner. Recall that former President Jerry Rawlings, in explaining why he was late to an important meeting, said that as he was taking a bath, the Ghana Water Service cut the water supply to the residence, as usual. That was long before his fire.

How does a city prevent/fight a Rawlings- Makola/Suame Magazine-type fire without water and trucks? Consider also that there have been reports where the Ghana Electricity Corporation itself could not get their trucks to disabled/burned electrical sub-stations because the roads were not all-weather/paved roads.

Assuming we are being a tad objective and have no pre-formed political objectives, a "security examination" probably misses the "fire-safety-road," we dare predict!

And so, on this front as well, the current crop of Ghanaian leaders continue to waste Ghana's time wishing "God rain down 'fire and brimstone' on the arsonists", and diverting attention. (Read the brilliant Ghana-centered article by Dr. Ofori Quaah on Ghanawb 10 June). Either that or leaders operate in virtual secrecy and have in thus case sprung "security experts" from a highly developed country on Ghanaians. This appears to be the preferred mechanism to a solution versus dusting up valid, archived fire safety findings, and actually fixing problems already known in a prudently and transparent manner by tactically appropriating public funds and supervising GNFS and other state agencies to work together collaboratively and transparently to help control and arrest the fire menace.

And so it goes, Ghana!

┬ęProf Lungu is Ghana-centered, Ghana-Proud. Prof Lungu is based in Washington DC, USA. Prof Lungu is brought to you courtesy, www.GhanaHero.com. Join us: (Email: professor.lungu at yahoo.com). (Washington DC, USA, 14 June, 2013).

Columnist: Lungu, Prof