Mak fire casts doubt on Uganda’s rescue services

Tuesday September 29 2020

A firefighter puts out fire at Makerere University’s Main Building on September 20. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA


For many people, the shock of the raging fire that gutted Makerere University’s Main Hall last week is still in their minds.  It is, therefore, prudent to ask tough questions about our capacity as a country to handle fires of such magnitude.

Makerere University is surrounded by seven fire hydrants at the university’s Eastern Gate, Wandegeya, Makerere College School, Makerere Hill Road, Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road, Total Bwaise, and Total Kavule.  A fire hydrant is a connection point where fire-fighters can tap into a water supply.

According to Sam Apedel, the public relations officer of National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), all the seven fire hydrants had water on the night of the fire. However, during that long night, the fire fighting team chose to make more than 50 trips to the fire brigade headquarters near Clock Tower (a distance of three kilometres) to fill the 11 fire tender trucks deployed against the fire.

A fire tender truck dispenses 4,000 litres of water in one minute and most of the fire trucks we have only have 8,000 to 12,000 litre capacity. Each truck took about 20 minutes on a trip, which gave the fire ample time to spread. Were the police not aware of the fire hydrants in the vicinity?

“The Police Fire Brigade has a map of where all these fire hydrants are located, so it was never a question about the availability of water in the vicinity. Kampala has 906 fire hydrants installed by NWSC where the police can draw water free-of-charge,” Apedel says.

Assistant Inspector General of Police Joseph Mugisha, who is the director of fire prevention and rescue Services in Uganda Police Force,  has a slightly higher figure of hydrants in Kampala.


“There are more than 1,200 fire hydrants in Kampala, but probably only 40 per cent of that number are functional. It is not the police’s responsibility to maintain these hydrants. The responsibility lies with NWSC,” he says.

Water challenge

Availability of water at the fire hydrants has always posed a challenge to fire fighting, with some hydrants empty or their locations unknown to the fire fighting staff. While the responsibility lies with NWSC, urban authorities, in this case, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), should not be let off the hook.

“City and municipal authorities must be vigilant when approving building plans. Some people have constructed buildings over, or in front of the hydrants. Some people are illegally using the water in the hydrants for domestic purposes because it is free,” Apedel adds.

Julius Odwe, former deputy Inspector General of Police, says the structural establishment of fire fighting units, which include offices, machinery and personnel should have been established a long time ago.

“I do not know how much (equipment) we have, but I think we are not in complete preparedness. Police stations such as, Kira Road, Jinja Road, Kawempe, Nateete, Kasubi Tombs, and Nansana should have independent fire fighting units because they are entry points into Kampala, so even if the central point is at Clock Tower, when a fire breaks out in any direction, it can be contained,” he says.

While the fire fighting unit at any police station is responsible for taking out a fire in a particular location – in Makerere’s case, Wandegeya Police Station was responsible; there is need of a backup unit. Sources say part of the team of 40 fire-fighters came from Mityana District. The question here is why didn’t the Wandegeya fire unit respond? Were there other fire fighting events taking place elsewhere in the city that the team was stretched?

Mugisha blames underfunding for the lack of fire fighting units all over the country. The country has only 96 fire fighting trucks.

“We would have loved to have a fire station and an emergency response centre in every town. Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve that. But let us agree that Rome was not built in one day.  However, we are progressively moving because at least we can boast that we are in every police region except in Sebei Sub-region and North West Nile,” he says.

In July, the department spread its services to Busoga North and Elegu border post.

State of firefighting equipment 

Just a day after the fire outbreak, a video by Daily Monitor photo journalist Stephen Otage made rounds on social media, showing firemen trying to repair the engine of a fire truck that had stalled at the scene.

This raises the question of the neglect to maintain the fire fighting equipment or the lack of funds to do the same. However, Mugisha says the equipment under his charge is in fair condition.

“What you saw was just a backup truck, one of the old machines we have. It is not one of the frontline trucks we rely on. There were the robust trucks that did a commendable job at the university. These trucks could fire water up to 20 to 30 metres high.

“A fire only goes out of hand, like the one at Makerere, because it was detected late or because of the nature of construction material used,” he says.

The capacity of the fire trucks to handle a high fire is also in question because when the first fire responders reached the scene, they were not able to jet water up to the tower where the fire was raging. The truck which had a crane mounted on top arrived when the fire had already spread to another side of the building.

At some point, the fire-fighters stood watching the fire raging on. It was clear that they had done the best they could. But Mugisha applauds his department, saying all his personnel are well trained.

“Some have even had robust training outside the country. They are knowledgeable and dedicated to their jobs. That is why they did it (the fire) like professionals. You could see the flow, the way they responded, and handled the equipment in an orderly fashion. That shows a trained team which works in unison and formation,” he says.

However, Odwe says for firemen, training is not enough.

“They must do practical or mock exercises. There is a tall building inside the fire headquarters, which is supposed to demonstrate how to respond to and handle fire in a storeyed structure. The fire-fighters have to get used to climbing up and down that building in regular practice. If this was being done, the Makerere fire would have been a simple matter,” he says.

In Mugisha’s view, his team can stand shoulder to shoulder with firefighting teams in the developed world.

“I certainly cannot say that they are at the level where I would want them to be, but some of them are there.  In 2017, it took the

British Police 36 hours to execute a fire in a tower and apartment block in West London. 70 lives were lost and the property completely destroyed. But, here comes our small team in Uganda which moves with a lot of zeal and professionalism, does a job (putting out the Makerere fire) that seems insurmountable and completes it in record time,” he says.

He adds that they have handled many potentially explosive fires. 

“I rate our fire fighting team highly. I have been privileged to meet some of the fire fighting services in the world. I have seen what they can do. We have the right of it to an extent,” he says.

The way forward

A couple of huge fire outbreaks in Kampala have proved to be challenging for the fire brigade. However, if there are structural challenges in the capital, what of the newly created cities? Odwe says a city needs a minimum of four police stations, each with a fire fighting unit, to be operational.

“However, with the new cities, only Jinja has two police stations (Jinja Main and Nalufenya). But, Nalufenya has no facility for firefighting, so if a fire breaks out in Lugazi, Buikwe District, they have to send to Jinja Main or Kampala. A police station must have a minimum of two fire vehicles – one for carrying water (fire truck) and another for shooting the water (fire tender),” he says.

Of course, there is also need for service lanes on our roads, which can be exclusively used by emergency vehicles.  A fire of a magnitude such as the one at Makerere University is a security risk because time and again, our fire protection services have been proved to be ineffectual.

Given the state of affairs, every building cannot have a fire hydrant, and every town cannot have fire fighting equipment.

Since fire fighting is not guesswork, one wonders why the 97-year-old Main Hall at Makerere University did not have a fire safety plan, which includes smoke detectors – which could have let off alarms when the fire started – or water sprinklers – which could have let off water in the room where the fire started once the heat began increasing.

Any facility or building, besides a fire safety plan, should undertake a fire risk assessment and regular fire drills to minimise damage in case of a fire.