London Burning; Accra Next?

Ghana Thinks

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Fire is scary. The thought that the home you live in or the office you work in could catch fire with you in it is a terrifying thought. So I can only imagine the horror of those who survived the recent Greenfell Tower inferno in London, as preliminary investigations reveal that the whole building may have been covered in material that caused it to burn faster and kill more people.

This thing is so sad. 

As far back as 2010, these plastic cladding products started rearing their ugly head in the construction market. They're cheaper and quicker to produce, so companies involved in providing affordable housing were heavily tempted to use them, in spite of the worrisome fire stopping deficiency. 

Re-cladding is done mainly for 2 reasons: to improve appearance by giving an old building a new facade, and to improve thermal efficiency by making it more difficult for a home to lose heat in the winter, through old walls that may have become porous over time. 

In 2013, I was managing a team of Estate Developers for a housing association in England. On one of the final projects we completed, my team re-clad an entire 1500-home community. It was a government contract, and we were keen to cut cost.

At the project planning stage, a supplier offered us a 30% saving with a brand of this new plastic-based cladding. The suppliers’ own safety test figures (which I never even cross-checked) reported a fire-stoppage time that was under a minute faster than the traditional cladding, which is made with a synthesised mineral wool. 

Less than a minute faster, still well within building regs, and over 30% cheaper. 

But I still said no.

You see, at the time, my son Fiifi was 3 years old, and could run from one room to the next in 5 seconds. I figured that if one of my units were on fire, 12 three-year-olds could escape from it in the space of one minute. There was no way I would trade even one human life for a 30% saving, much more twelve lives, so I said no. 

Of course, I was also terrified of going to jail for manslaughter if someone left a cooker or toaster on in any one of those 1500 homes and started a fatal fire. And I most certainly would have gone to jail, because:

1. The highly skilled fire investigators would have found the cause of the fire

2. They would have seen my signature on the order forms that purchased the cladding 

3. They would then have pulled the planning meeting minutes which would show that I deliberately chose the less safe product to save money. 

4. Then they would have seen my signature on the handover form at the end of the construction process that said these 1500 houses were ok for human occupation.

So I would have been arrested, charged, tried and jailed, because, in my decision-making, I would have failed to consider the most important thing: the preservation of human life. And this would all have happened in spite of the fact that the product was well within building regulations.

Now, I'm sitting here, reading about the tragic London fire, and wondering about all these new apartment blocks springing up across our beautiful capital city. A few of them have some active fire-stopping measures like extinguishers, sprinklers etc, but these have limited effectiveness against certain fires. So the real life-saving question is: are Ghanaian construction projects including any passive fire-stopping, or are we all living in tinder-box homes that will burn in a flash and engulf all neighbouring homes before anyone knows what's happening? 

Passive fire-stopping is when you build in fire retardation membranes or use fire-retarding materials to construct the compartment walls of a structure to prevent fire spreading from one compartment of the building to the next. Our building regulations in Ghana specify the need for passive fire stopping of no less than one hour. That means if the apartment or semi-detached house next to yours catches fire, it should take no less than one hour for that fire to spread into your home. This gives you and your family more than enough time to evacuate, while the fire service also takes their time to contain the fire in that one location.

Now, does anyone in government check to ensure that all these buildings springing up around us are meeting those regs?  Or are these decisions left to the discretion of the builder/owner?

Some of you have built homes before. Did anyone come over from the District Planning Authority to inspect your work and measure the fire stopping capabilities before signing off for you to decorate (In fact, there are at least ten separate stages of construction at which your property should have been inspected, and you cannot proceed from any one of these stages to the next unless the Authority signs off for you to proceed. Did you know that)?

For those of you who bought, or are renting already-built homes, did the vendor or landlord show you any documentation detailing the specific fire-stopping features of your home? If a fire starts in the next room/apartment, do you know how much time you have to get your family to safety? If you lose a family member to a preventable fire outbreak, would you get justice? Will investigators even know whom to hold responsible? Heck, would they even be able to tell you what caused the fire without bringing in the FBI? 

Ghana's building regulations - like all our laws - are beautifully written. But those responsible for enforcing them are continuing to waste resources, space and oxygen by enforcing nothing, and allowing people to build whatever they like wherever they like. The only time they might leave the office is to go collect a bribe from someone who wants to break the law, yet, every month, we continue to pay these ineffective government workers to put lives at risk.

Or perhaps, they don't even know the regulations they are paid to enforce. It's a reasonable assumption, considering the fact that last year, our nation's fire chief went to Parliament to ask them to make a law banning construction of buildings with more than four floors, because the fire service don't have the equipment to fight fires in buildings taller than that.

The Alto building at Villaggio in Accra has 27 floors, in case you’re wondering.

We have suffered disaster after disaster in this country - from the Melcom and Cantonments building collapses to the June 3 flooding, to the numerous fires that have cost valuable life and property. These things have been caused directly by a failure to enforce our regulations during construction. The real culprits in each of these cases are identifiable individuals of the District Planning Authorities, who are still sitting in government offices, driving government vehicles and drawing government salaries long after the bodies of their victims have been buried. Why?

Just two days after the Greenfell Tower tragedy in London, the investigation has identified the cause of the fire, and a probe has been initiated to identify the numerous decisions and decision makers whose choices led the loss of 30 lives so far, and millions of pounds worth of property. If any of those decisions are found to have been made in negligence of the overarching mandate of protecting lives, then justice and compensation will be secured for the victims.

Meanwhile, in Ghana, a school collapsed and killed 6 little children. Mothers crawled over the debris to cradle the lifeless forms of their babies. Grief-stricken parents tried to hold the cracked skulls of their little angels together as if that would somehow bring them back to life. Those responsible for regulating the construction of that block failed to do their jobs, and those families lost their innocent children. But where are those negligent officials today? Still at work. Still drawing a salary. Still remunerated by the taxes paid by all of us, including those bereaved families.

These are poor families who can't afford the services of an Ace Ankomah or a Samson Lardy or a Yonni Kulendi to seek justice for them. So once again, the protected and privileged in our society make decisions that cost the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us, and they get away with it. Truly and always, an Upside-down Republic.

Like I said, it's sad.