WELLINGTON FIRE DISASTER REPORT: REMOVING THE SUGAR COATING

PONDER MY THOUGHTS

BY

Andrew Keili

It was a massive petroleum disaster without precedence in Sierra Leone on 5th November, 2021 that affected 310 people. One hundred and fifty-four (154) deceased were recorded (including those found dead on the scene and those who later died in hospital). Eighty-six (86) of the deceased could not be identified and sixty-nine (69) missing persons were reported. Two dwelling houses, 5 shops, 20 vehicles, 48 motorbikes, 3 kekes were completely damaged in addition to the fuel tanker and stone truck whose collision caused the debacle.

It is all too easy for such a good report presented by the investigating committee to be left to gather dust, whilst we pretend this will not happen again. Let us seriously mull over the findings of this report, some of which border on the absurd.

  1. The Police and SLRSA were plain useless

The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) could not protect the disaster scene. Although SLP personnel were stationed at the PMB junction 100m away, they could not divert vehicular and human traffic away. No action was taken before the explosion occurred, even though there was an appreciable period of time between the collision at about 21:05 hrs, and the explosion at about 21:47 hrs. They did not call for reinforcement from the nearest deployment and claimed that their personnel experienced “communications problems”.

There were no Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA) traffic corps on the scene. According to SLRSA their personnel are not mandated to be at their duty stations after 20:00 hrs due to safety concerns (poorly lit roads, increasing threat to personal safety from members of the public). SLRSA also claimed it could not adequately contribute to the evacuation of personnel because of “equipment problems”. SLRSA could not even provide information on the ownership of the truck loaded with granite stones which hit the fuel tanker and additional work still needs to be done by SLP to assist the Petroleum Regulatory Agency (PRA), SLRSA and Insurance Companies to obtain accurate data of the truck to help determine its insurance status.

That an SLP which effectively controls traffic and cordons off areas when a Presidential convoy approaches could not do so when a heinous accident occurs is surely an indictment on the “force for good”. This is the same force that so effectively rounds up “illegal protesters” and effectively arrests “errant drivers”. SLRSA also seems to have reneged on its mandate. The same institution which advices that many Bulk Road Vehicles (BRVs) travel at night because of the dangers they might pose takes its traffic corps off the streets because of “safety concerns”! They did not have vehicles and equipment to contribute to the evacuation effort but probably have enough 4WD vehicles for their Senior Managers. It is little surprise that the vehicle particulars for the stone truck are still not available as it was probably not licenced and insured, as with many other such vehicles which ply the routes.

One school of thought, according to the report is that the tipper truck may have lost control. Another is that the truck had earlier violated a traffic regulation at Calaba Town and was driving at a high speed to escape the incident, resulting in the collision.

  1. The National Fire Force needs more than redemption

When the call was made at approximately 21:34 hrs, the National Fire Force (NFF) released the first fire truck from the Kissy Fire station to the scene. Upon arrival at about 21:47 hrs, they called for additional fire trucks from the headquarters and Seama Town Fire Stations. The report states that “NFF’s response was somewhat constrained by the absence of working fire hydrants in the vicinity of the accident. Filling of fire engines had to be done at the Kissy Fire Station and Macdonald (beyond Waterloo); the closest functional hydrant to the incident scene, was at Eastern Police (which was far away).” Fifty firefighters (using 4 fire engines) worked to put out the fire, using water and foam solution over the course of 5 hours.

Spare a thought for the poor firefighters who were fighting valiantly but were inhibited by inadequate resources and poor accessibility of fire hydrants. The report is not clear about the source of water used for the filling of fire engines at Kissy Fire Station and Macdonald (beyond Waterloo). However, it is ridiculous that the closest fire hydrant to the Wellington accident site was at the Eastern Police station.

The plight of the NFF and the status of fire hydrants are concerning. How can a National Fire Force have only 400 firefighters and 19 fire engines countrywide? The force has insufficient personnel (many unskilled), engines, equipment, and chemicals to respond to major fire incidents. In 2006, according to the report, there were 287 fire hydrants across Freetown. Currently, there are only 6 functional ones. Even the safety equipment utilized by the NFF was supplied by the World Bank through ONS.

  1. NP was “3-footed”

There is ample evidence from the report that NP had adequately sensitized and trained its drivers, station owners and staff on the perils of such fires. They were nevertheless hampered by other extraneous factors, not of their own making.

The fuel tanker driver actually used a megaphone to warn people to stay away from the tanker that was leaking fuel. The report praises “the awareness of the fuel station managers and attendants of the hazards posed by the accident, and their decision to close the stations”. Without doing this, the problem could have probably been worse. The report states that “following the accident, NP (SL) Ltd released a team of trained personnel to attend to the BRV accident, with the aim of minimizing the hazard and preventing members of the public from accessing the fuel. They were however delayed in reaching the accident site due to the traffic jam, prior to the subsequent explosion”. They had the spoon but could not get to the rice and plassas plate! Poor NP-they were “3 footed”! A senior NP Manager claimed that the company provided yearly fire safety training and took additional measures including the installation of spill kits in strategic locations in the country.

  1. Lawlessness and indiscipline are rife

The report asserts that lawlessness on the part of the public was a major factor in the spread of the fire and the extent of carnage and destruction. Keke riders and members of the public were scooping away fuel from the site in helmets and open containers. The reports attribute the source of ignition possibly to an attempt by an individual to disconnect the battery from the tipper truck. It is obvious that little heed was paid to the warnings of the tanker driver to vacate the site. Ours is generally an undisciplined society. Illegal squatters stay around the fuel storage tanks at Kissy. Many of our disasters like deforestation are man-made and the designated authorities just throw their hands up in the air. Little wonder then that apart from normal traffic, streets are clogged up with illegal squatters, illegal garages and buildings perched in the right of way.

  1. Government should wake up from the “disaster slumber”

It appears though that the NDMA did a fairly good job in the overall coordination of the response, and setting up an Incident Command Center (ICC). They worked with key response agencies including NFF, NEMS, RSLAF, and SLP and PRA, ONS, SLRCS and NEMS.

The report makes many good suggestions including greater widespread public sensitization on such issues, regular refresher training, the establishment of a toll-free line to report all threats, emergencies and disaster occurrences, setting up a multi-stakeholder Petroleum Product BRV Safety and Accident Committee and many others.

The NDMA’s mandate is wide-ranging and it has been doing a fairly good job in sensitizing the public about various disasters and in disaster preparedness and in coordinating relief for those affected by disasters. It has considerably more to do however within its huge mandate. Sierra Leone has over 13 percent of its area and more than 35 percent of its population presently at risk of multiple hazards. Government must surely lend a hand to make the NDMA more effective by better financing and capacitation as it already has shown it has potential and good and disciplined leadership. Whatever the case, the NDMA’s work should be complemented by other state and non-state actors, many of which badly need financing and capacitation as well from government and other sources.

What is however disconcerting in this case is the fact that institutions like the SLP and SLRSA were downright inept, the regulatory effectiveness of others like the PRA was not readily apparent and a vital organisation like the NFF has been allowed to atrophy because of pure neglect. Six functional hydrants in an entire city and a police force incapable of cordoning off areas and controlling traffic are issues that should be an indictment on any government that prides itself in looking after the safety of its citizens. But then, we just seem to have our priorities wrong. This report must not be kept on the shelf to gather dust. The government needs to wake up from the “disaster slumber”.

Ponder my thoughts.

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