Health fire: was it arson or just unfortunate

Health fire: was it arson or just unfortunate

MASERU – The police are still groping for answers to explain what could have caused the fire that gutted the finance office at the Ministry of Health. The police and the fire brigade department are yet to submit a report on the incident that happened two weeks ago.
But as new details emerge questions are being asked as to how such a modern building with a sophisticated fire system could have caught fire and be so extensively damaged.
The fire completely destroyed the computers, files and furniture in the finance office.
It also partially damaged the adjacent office.
And the ceilings in several nearby offices will also have to be replaced.

The Ministry of Health’s head office is one of the modern more government offices in the country.
The 12-year-old building is owned by the Constitution Road Developers, a property company owned by South Africans and Basotho.
It has fire alarms that trigger when there is any smoke. However, it doesn’t seem that the alarm went off when the fire started. That could mean either the system was broken or it had been deliberately switched off.
A building expert who spoke to thepost this week said it is quite easy to switch off the alarm system.
“You simply switch it off on the electricity mains or cover the detectors with something,” said a civil engineer who has been involved in several construction projects in Lesotho.
Night guards said smoke — not the alarm — alerted them to the fire.
The finance office is about 30 metres away from the reception area where the guards were sitting.
The guards’ reaction is also curious. It is reported that they walked to the police’s head office, less than 200 metres from the ministry, to report the fire. It is not clear why they didn’t call.

First to arrive at the scene were officers from the Police’s Special Operations Unit who came armed with rifles instead of fire equipment. Realising that their guns were of no use, they alerted the fire brigade which also did not bring fire equipment.
Although just about 300 metres from the ministry the fire department doesn’t seem to have responded swiftly.
The department is notorious for being lethargic and most of its equipment is broken.
They did not bring any equipment, according to Health Minister Nkaku kabi who said could not believe it when he received a report that the ministry was on fire.
Yet even if they did not have the right equipment, the building is designed to handle such fire emergences.

Each wing has a fire hydrant connected to a water tank on top of the building.
Kabi told journalists that the fire department came “unprepared and the fire was spreading while the firemen battled to get the right equipment”.
At the same media briefing the ministry’s chief of finance, Mpheteng Tšukulu, sought to allay fears and suspicions that the fire was deliberately started.
Tšukulu said there was nothing suspicious about the incident.
He said no records were lost during the fire and payments will not be affected.
He was responding insinuations that someone could have started the fire to destroy evidence of corruption and other misdeeds.

An official of the Constitution Road Developers said they had informed Lesotho National Insurance Group (LNIG), their insurer. He said LNIG had sent a team of fire investigators.
By last week the investigators were combing through the wreckage for any clues that could help explain what caused the fire.
Marathane Tlhomola, Estate Manager at the Ministry, said they are still waiting for official reports from the police and its fire department. He said although the damage “looks bad he doesn’t believe the repairs will cost a lot”.
“The finance office is totally destroyed. The next building is partly damaged. The ceiling in other offices will obviously need to be replaced,” Tlhomola said, adding that it could cost around half a million maloti.
thepost has seen a 2008 inspection report of the building.
The report prepared by the chief environmental health officer at the ministry was meant to give a detailed assessment of the building.
The report recommended some adjustments to avert a fire disaster.
It said water sprinklers should be installed to contain a fire.
It recommended that the capacity of fire extinguishing devices should be increased.

By that it meant the fire hose reel length should be increased, the reels be “placed strategically” and the fire panels be “fully equipped”.
It suggested that there should be fire hydrants with water and the water hoses should be serviced.
The report said door stoppers should be installed to stop the spread of fire. Also said electric cables should be fixed and insulated.
It is not clear if all these adjustments and repairs were made.
But judging by the extent of the damage it is clear that the building’s fire mechanisms need to be reassessed.
It is also clear that the government has to urgently provide resources to the fire department before a colossal disaster strikes. As for what caused the fire at the ministry, the answers are likely to come from a report to be compiled by LNIG’s fire investigators.

Majara Molupe


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