School fires: How safe are learners?

A dormitory at Sempeera Memorial Primary School in Kassanda District. Many schools across the country do not follow the fire safety and security rules. PHOTO/BARBRA NALWEYISO

What you need to know:

  • Many schools across the country have not installed fire safety equipment such as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

On January 15, fire gutted New Crest Junior School in Kawempe Division, Kampala killing four pupils and injuring three others.

On the same day, a Primary Four pupil of St John’s Primary School in Kyotera District perished when fire gutted one of the dormitories at the school.

The two incidents shocked the country since they occurred just five days after learners reported back to school after nearly two years of schools being closed to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Four other fires occurred last week, bringing to six the number of school fires in the first three weeks of the new school term. 

Two were in Wakiso District at Nanziga SDA Primary School and St Cecilia Primary School, Masajja while the rest were in Busoga Sub-region at Bupadhengo Primary School in Kamuli District and Buluba Day and Boarding Primary School in Mayuge District. 

Fortunately, no fatalities have been registered in the latest incidents but property worth millions of shillings was destroyed.

A snap survey by Daily Monitor in some of the schools across the country revealed that many schools do not follow fire safety and security rules.

Safety measures
One of the safety rules is that every dormitory must have at least two exits – the main door and an emergency exit door. However, dormitories at many schools we visited only have one door, some of which are locked from the outside at night. 

Many schools also lack perimeter walls around school premises, reasonable number of security guards, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras while others still have outlawed triple-decker beds and burglar proof windows.

At Kamaiba Primary School, in Kasese Municipality, the school does not have fire extinguishers and each dormitory has only one door. It also lacks smoke detectors and CCTV cameras.

Mr Razia Pokopoko, the deputy head teacher, said they are in the process of procuring all the safety and security equipment.

In Jinja City, Ms Vincentia Musubika, the head teacher of Kyomya Primary School, admitted that the school has no fire extinguisher. 

She added: “We are yet to erect a perimeter fence and the security guard we have only reports at night because he is not vaccinated against Covid-19.”  

In Gulu City, Mr Charles Erwenyo, the district education officer, said many schools have set up boarding sections without seeking approval from the Ministry of Education.
“We are going to go for them and they will tell us who authorised them to operate boarding sections,” he said. Mr Simon Waigo, the coordinator of St Andrews College in Moyo District, said the school hires qualified electricians to carryout electoral wiring in all buildings at the school.

“Also, electrical appliances like flat irons are used only in gazetted places which are properly maintained to avoid fire incidents,” he said.

In Kaliro District, the head teacher of Wangobo Primary School, Mr John Opio, said the school does not have fire extinguishers and a perimeter wall.

He, however, said the school has installed CCTV cameras, two lightning conductors and has recruited three security guards, despite the little funds they receive from the government.

In Koboko District, Mindrambe Primary School, which has 1,393 learners lacks fire extinguishers.
“As I talk now, our electricity connections are faulty and efforts are being made to swiftly fix the problem before it causes a short circuit,” Mr Joseph Nginya, the head teacher, said.

Mr Alex Wamujwa, the director of Kigalama Forward Secondary School in Namutumba District, said buying equipment such as CCTV cameras is very expensive.

“We request the Ministry of Education to give us more time as we look for money to buy items like cameras and smoke detectors because the one we had installed got stolen during the lockdown,” he said.
The situation is not different in Mpigi District. 

Mr Mustafa Nanfumba, the director of Mpigi Mixed Secondary School, said many schools are still constrained to put in place the required safety and security measures due to lack of funds.

“When President Museveni announced January 10 as the reporting day for learners, schools were not given enough time to prepare. It is true some schools are lacking in some areas, but we are trying very hard to put in place whatever is needed because we don’t want our licences to be revoked,” he said.

In Kasese District, all the five classrooms at Mother Gives Nursery and Primary School have neither smoke detectors nor fire extinguishers.

At Kihungamiyagha Primary School in Kasese District, Mr Jocknus Bwambale, the head teacher, said safety equipment like lightning arrestors and fire extinguishers were stolen during Covid-19 lockdown, and plans are underway to have them replaced.

“I have registered two cases of theft of lightning arrestors at my school and these equipment are being stolen by community members,” he said.

In Buliisa, district authorities say most of the schools lack safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and CCTV cameras.

At Amari Gardener Nursery Primary and Secondary School in Buliisa District, the school uses a chain link fence around the entire school land and entry is strictly on permission.

The head teacher, Mr Wilson Twinamatsiko, said the dormitories have burglar proof windows but they are preparing to have them removed.

Mr Twinamatsiko added that the school has only one fire extinguisher. 
“We are looking for a trained nurse who will at the same time work as a matron,” he said. 

However, some schools had established some fire safety measures.
Mr Rajab Nyombi, the internal security officer of Butambala District, said they carried out an on-spot inspection exercise during the second week of the term and discovered that boarding schools had the necessary equipment required in case of a fire emergency.

“We do not have many boarding schools here, but the few which are available have in place what is required,” he said.

The management of St Katherine Secondary School in Lira City, said they have in place a security and safety committee to handle emergencies.
 The committee comprises teachers, students, and security personnel, according to Mr Levi Abongo, the deputy head teacher in-charge of administration.
 “We don’t want to be taken by surprise like it has happened in some schools where lives of students were lost,” Mr Abongo said. 

The school has a fence and has also installed smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in all the dormitories. It also has six armed security guards, and four matrons. 

“Some old dormitories still have burglar proof windows but emergency exit doors have been created to allow the students swiftly move out in case of a fire outbreak,” he said. 

Mr Fred Jalameso, the head teacher of Light Vocational Secondary School in Lira City, said the school has installed fire fighting equipment. 

“We also have a full-time staff member, who is the school electrician and carries out regular inspections in all the dormitories to ensure there is no loose connection, which normally causes short-circuits sparking fire incidents,” he said.   

Mr Stephen Kakeeto, the Masaka City inspector of schools, said they have enforced their inspection of schools which are prone to fire incidents and many of them have since adhered to operational and safety standards.

“A big number of the schools we have so far inspected have put in place safety measures like buying fire extinguishers, CCTV cameras and creating emergency exits in the dormitories, among others.We are almost at 99 percent as far as compliance with school standards is concerned,” Mr Kakeeto said.

He added that all schools have been directed to hire professionals to handle electrical wirings in buildings.

Mr Benedict Nkaata, the head teacher of Hill Road Public School in Masaka City, said they are always on alert to prevent any fire incident that may occur.

“We have put in place some fire extinguishers and also trained pupils to be vigilant about their safety and security within and outside dormitories,” he said.

The head teacher of Muljibhai Madhvani College Wairaka, Ms Hilda Namutosi, said the school has fire extinguishers in classes, staff rooms, and dormitories and plans are underway to install cameras. 

“We also have 10 security guards armed with arrows and bows. We could have put a fence around the school by now but we still have a problem with our neighbour who claims part of the land,” Ms Namutosi said.

Mr Richard Odoi, the Tororo Municipality inspector of schools, said all boarding schools which operate below standard have been ordered to close.

“Many schools have complied, but some private schools, which operate illegal boarding sections, are still giving us headache,” he said.

Mr Muzamiru Munduga, the head teacher of Kuru Secondary School in Yumbe District, said their staff have been trained on how to manage fire incidents in the school. 

Mr Albert Yandu, the chairperson of the management committee at St Daniel Nursery and Primary School in Bundibugyo District, said: “We make sure the teachers do not give any chance for the learners to temper with the sockets. We do not have gadgets like fire extinguishers in place, but we have stored enough sand to use in case of a fire outbreak.”

Govt reacts...Conducting on-spot inspections
Ms Kedrace Turyagyenda, the director of Education Standards in the Ministry of Education said it is the sole responsibility of local government leaders to conduct an on-spot inspection of schools across the country to check their readiness to handle emergencies such as fire outbreaks. 

“We are in a decentralised system and our teams at the districts are charged with the responsibility of checking whether those schools meet the required standards, if they have not done so, they are doing a disservice to this country,” she said. 

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