It is no longer news that on Tuesday, November 16, suicide bombers associated with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an extremist group affiliated to the Islamic State group (ISIS), set off two powerful bomb explosions in the heart of Kampala city leaving a number of people dead and others nursing injuries.
Clouds of smoke quickly filled the streets of the city. Office workers and residents ran in panic as they tried to outpace the billowing debris clouds. In the aftermath, a number of buildings and other property, including motor vehicles, suffered serious damage.
These terror attacks were the latest in a string of bombings that have rocked the country in recent weeks. And from the look of things, we could, sadly, just be getting started – the worst could be yet to come! According to Police Spokesperson, Fred Enanga, at least 150 planned attacks had recently been defused, but the terror groups are eager to carry out more attacks.
As new details continue to emerge about these terror threats, I have been tempted to delve into recent history relating to Uganda’s response to similar threats and emergency situations. And this route has led me straight to the country’s fire department, an often-neglected, but a key Police unit, especially in these troubling times.
While analysing the state of Uganda’s fire department, my memory quickly drew me to the fire that gutted Makerere University’s now 80-year-old iconic main administration building in September last year. The fire destroyed student records, University archives and property worth billions of shillings.
Addressing journalists immediately thereafter, the University Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe said that the fire had been seen a few minutes after it started but it couldn’t be stopped. He said: “The first fire trucks failed to put out the fire because they had short hoses that could not spray long distances. By the time fire trucks with cranes and long horses arrived, the fire had already spread to nearly the entire right side of the building”.
According to eye witnesses, at some point, the fire-fighters helplessly stood and watched as the fire raged on. It was clear that they had done the best they could. Hon. Mathias Mpuuga, now Leader of Opposition in Parliament, described the incident as “the highest level of criminal negligence and absent planning”.
The Makerere University fire incident should have served as a wake-up call to government and the Uganda Police because it showed how ill-equipped the country was in fighting fires and emergency responses. It, therefore, gives me a serious heartache knowing that not much has since changed in the fire brigade unit even amid today’s looming terror attacks.
Underfunding and inadequate fire equipment, personnel
Uganda Police’s firefighting and rescue budget for FY2021/22 is estimated to be in the region of Ushs8 billion, or $$2.3 million, but I have doubts whether this will sufficiently cater for the replacement of the currently dilapidated fire equipment (firefighting trucks, fire hydrants, water tankers, etc.), the training or re-training of our rusty firefighters and the creation of basic safety awareness.
With the current state of Uganda’s fire department, if a major terrorist attack occurred, in the worst cases like the U.S 9/11 attacks, I can guarantee that the emergency and rescue system would be overwhelmed almost immediately, resulting into hundreds of causalities.
The department requires an immediate overhaul, with modernized technology, reworked on-scene protocols, and enhanced training for thefirefighters. In the U.S 9/11 attacks, if it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of the New York City Fire Department’s well-trained personnel, thousands of lives that were saved would have otherwise been lost. And as it turned out, about 343 firefighters lost their lives.
Firefighting in the age of terrorism is a whole new phenomenon. We need modern-day firefighters who are the trained to respond to modern-day disasters. Their expectations and competencies should go beyond fighting house or market fires but to also include hazardous materials response, and handling incidents of domestic terrorism.
Need for a re-designed Counterterrorism and Risk Management Strategy
The Uganda Police urgently needs a new or revised Counterterrorism and Risk Management Strategy. For the fire department, the key component of this strategy should be inclusion of response considerations. The Department’s terrorism preparedness can minimize the effects of an attack, quicken mitigation and recovery, and better inform firefighters of trends in terrorism.
The strategy should include intelligence production and consumption, counterterrorism-specific training, technological enhancements and improved network command structures that can better manage complex, large-scale incidents.
The fire department should work tirelessly to significantly enhance its planning and operational capabilities to better respond to terrorism. Itneeds to closely study previous incidents, conduct training on multi-agency and single agency responses, and coordinate and collaborate with response objectives and operations.
More active approaches to fire-safety during property construction is also critical. In collaboration with other government agencies, building frames must now include fire protection, and engineers need to conduct computational analysis to model what could happen structurally in a fire rather than relying on defensive fire protections.
I agree that all terrorist attacks cannot be prevented. However, it is important that our fire and emergency agencies promote a culture of preparedness and resilience. But as they do that, we, the public, must also realize that every citizen has a role to play if these heinous attacks are to be prevented.
Working collaboratively as a nation, I believe we can win this battle and gain the upper hand in bringing these events to an end.
Mr. Brian Mukalazi is the Country Director of Every Child Ministries Uganda.