Airport fire calls for tight response policy

The closure of Kenya’s main airport yesterday following a dawn fire was another stark reminder of the country’s inadequacy in responding to disasters.

While the cause of the worst fire on record at the region’s busiest airport was not yet known, it was clear the response was hurting, despite that facility being a walking distance from the Airforce barracks.

Kenya Airports Authority also boasts a fleet of advanced fire engines and fighters that have been deployed regularly during drills.

Talk that water hydrants at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) failed makes a mockery of an airport that is aspiring to be one of the best on the continent that has recently been the attention of global carriers.

Questions are being asked why a vital installation like JKIA does not have detectors to alert authorities of fire starting far from the runways.

This appears to be the missing link since State officials said the fire started at the immigration area of the International Arrivals terminal at about 4.35am then spread to the customs/baggage area.

The firefighters appeared unprepared because flames from the inferno and the intense heat repeatedly drove them back as the blaze ravaged buildings.

Kenya’s rescue teams in a number of occasions have failed to meet expectations, either arriving late or being prompt but half equipped.

This was apparent in 2008 when Nakumatt’s retail store in the city centre was brought down in an inferno despite the supermarket being less than 250 metres from Nairobi County’s main fire station.

In 2011, more than 100 people were killed by a fire explosion in Nairobi linked to a fuel spill from a facility owned by the State-owned Kenya Pipeline Company.

Response was slow and unprepared; it was echoed at JKIA, which fortunately had no casualties.

Failure by the government to put in place a comprehensive disaster preparedness is to blame.

As usual, the government has formed a committee to evaluate the JKIA inferno and we hope it will highlight the safety lapses and ensure gaps are plugged to avoid a deadly tragedy at the facility.

The airport is one of the facilities that are critical at turning Kenya into a middle income country before 2030, and its safety record must be beyond reproach.