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Freetown’s fire accidents: causes, impact and solution  

 February 8, 2016 By Mohamed Massaquoi and Alusine Sesay

Following the recent spate of fire disasters in Freetown and its environs, Concord Times embarked on a week-long investigation into the possible causes, impact and solution.

Since last December to date, Freetown has had more than its fair share of fire disasters, beginning from the Shell fuel station in the east, to the Electricity House on Siaka Steven Street, to the Kai Samba House, to the Rokupa Government Hospital, also in the eastern part of the city. There were also reported fire incidents in other parts of the country, including Shenge in Moyamba district in the south where at least 20 homes were destroyed in a blaze.

Fingers have been pointed at EDSA officers, although the agency itself blames individuals for the cause of the fire.

As we write, a staff of EDSA has been arraigned at a magistrate court in Freetown for the offence of arson and setting fire on properties of government.

Some staff members of the agency are also being investigated by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and have made statements in relation to three fire incidents at the Electricity House.

Meanwhile, Victims of fire incidents in Freetown have blamed EDSA for fire disasters in the city. According to them, high voltage causes sparks on household appliances even when they put off the mains.

Mohamed Kamara, a resident of Siaka Steven Street, said for the past two months they have been seeing EDSA workers connecting transmission and distribution lines within the city, but that most of the transformers installed across the city are outdated.

The work of a transformer is to regulate high power voltage for domestic consumption. Customers though have accused EDSA of being negligent in regulating power voltage to their homes.

But the Senior Electrical Superintendent for Commercial and Technical Activities at EDSA, Ephriam Davies, told Concord Times that they do provide technical advice to customers and that most household occupants do not heed to that advise, but instead use substandard electrical materials to wire their houses.

“We make sure that we advise them not to use substandard materials but they fail to adhere to our advice,” he said.

Davies furthered that the use of substandard electrical materials to wire a building could lead to fire disaster and electrocution, but was quick to say that three fire incidents at the Electricity House were caused by mere accident.

He said procedurally they cannot connect a house without recommendation from a licensed electrical engineer, and that they always demand application for wiring and completion of wiring certificate before connecting homes to the power grid.

“Before connection, we inspect the wiring of the customer’s house and provide recommendation as the size of cable that would be used. We have in many cases terminated certain connections where we discovered some anomalies in the wiring,” he said, adding that EDSA is not directly involved in wiring customers houses and that they only connect a building after the private electrical contractors complete the wiring process. He said that they use different cables for various connections, depending on the wattage of power needed by the individual customers.

“We cannot use the same cable for factories and individual dwelling houses,” he reiterated.

However, Concord Times discovered during the course of our investigation that the procedure highlighted by the EDSA engineer with regards connecting customers to the power grid is not being followed strictly by both EDSA and customers.

“My house was connected without any completion certificate from a private electrical contractor. I applied for meter after I had wired my house, but I was not asked to provide completion of wiring certificate,” said Saidu Kargbo of New England Ville.

He admitted though that some inspection was done by certain staff of EDSA, but noted that the inspection was only limited to the placement of the meter board, and that inspection on internal wiring was not conducted.

Meanwhile, it is apparent that customers have been using substandard materials to wire their houses because proper inspection on internal wiring is not being conducted by EDSA.

There is no law that regulates the importation of electrical materials into the country and importers are at liberty to bring in all sort of substandard materials.

While some fire victims have attributed the cause of the fire incidents to high voltage, this may not be unconnected to projects currently implemented by the Energy Ministry to improve the supply of electricity in the Western Area Urban and Rural.

The Chief Fire Force Officer of the National Fire Force, Nassir Kamanda Bongay, has said that 75% of fire disasters happening across the country are caused by electrical problems and that delays to respond to fire incidents by his men were as a result of inadequate water hydrants.

The entire Freetown has just two hydrants, both in the west-end of the capital, which is scandalously inadequate for a population of at least 1. 5 million.

Kamanada Bongay said majority of wirings in homes in the city are fitted with out-dated 7044 cables made in Britain, which last for 20 years, whilst the same cables made in China and other countries have ten years life span.

He added that the recent spate of fire disasters in Freetown was caused by poor electrical fittings, although several warnings had been made to the public to periodically change cables.

He also revealed that since 2015 over 400 hundred houses have been destroyed by fire, primarily caused by electrical problems, while few were ignited by candle or bush fire.

Currently, the Energy Ministry is implementing the Energy Access Project – a US$16 million project funded by the World Bank to upgrade the transmission network from Blackhall Road to Wellington, east of Freetown.

There is also the Islamic Development Bank funded project currently implemented by a Tunisian company called STEG International to rehabilitate medium and low voltage network, with the project also seeking to create new lines in the Western Area.

There are other projects funded by ECOWAS and JICA that seek to extend power distribution in Freetown and transport electricity to Goderich and Sussex respectively.

According to a newsletter published by the Energy Access Project last December, Minister of Energy, Amb. Henry Olufemi Macauley was quoted as saying that some strides have been made to improve power supply to customers.

“In terms of improvement evacuation I believe we are seeing a reduction in technical losses because now we are evacuating more power. In fact on one single day we were able to evacuate 49.3 MW of electricity which is huge, considering the fact that we use to evacuate below 20MW,”the minister was quoted to have said.

This improvement, according to our findings, is being compromised by customers who still use old connections, which experts say could be reason for the frequent fire disasters.

According to the Chief Fire Officer, the city might experience more fire disasters due to the dry wind in the dry season.

Communication Specialist at the Energy Access Project, Mamadi Ngobeh Kamara, gave details of the implementation stage of the project that covers from Blackhall Road to Wellington in the east of Freetown.

She said as part of revenue mobilisation, the project procured and replaced post paid metres with prepaid meters and that they paid compensation to property owners whose houses are under the transmission lines.

She said studies were being conducted for the improvement in transmission lines, with the installation of more transformers for improved power generation expected.

Millions, if not billions have been lost to the blazes by both the government and private individuals.

With few or no insurance cover, it remains to be seen how both parties would recoup their loss.

During the course of our investigation, we observed that the entire Electricity House was being rewired. However, Public Relations Officer of the Electricity Distribution and Supply Agency (EDSA), Sahr Nepor, refused to disclose the amount of money spent on the repairs.

We have not seen an end to the fire disaster as many are skeptical that any sustainable solutions, such as installing hydrants in Freetown and the provinces and putting fire extinguishers in public and buildings and homes, are in the offing just yet.