Are University Students in Uganda Safe from Fire?

Article Authors; Ongebo Ivan (L) and Mathius Ampeerize (R)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burns result in approximately 250,000 deaths each year, with over 90% from low and middle-income countries like Uganda. Fire incidents in schools are a worldwide phenomenon that ranges from being highly localized to global in scope.

Uganda Police Report 2019 indicated that on average, 18% of schools in Uganda have a history of fires in addition to many others undocumented. Out of 999 fire incidents in 2019, 314 were from residential buildings and 10 incidents from the learning institutions. Many others also killed over 46 people and left 36 others with serious injuries.

Many universities in Uganda have inadequate accommodation for students hence forcing students to look for accommodation outside, but near the university. This means that the university management will have either limited or no control over the fire safety of the students who are accommodated in private hostels. In private hostels, students are always at risk of fire hazards, and their vulnerability increases depending on their practices, attitude, and knowledge concerning fire prevention. Other factors include physical design, construction, and installation standard of electric wires in their private hostels as well as the physical location of hostel buildings.

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Practice: Some students take alcohol, use alcoholic spirits, paraffin, and gas cookers, which are highly flammable substances. Others use charcoal stoves for cooking and candles in the absence of electricity. Some students may have a combination of more than three hazards above, hence increasing their susceptibility. Poor practices by the hostel owners, such as the absence of fire safety guidelines and fire fighting equipment increase students’ vulnerability to fire outbreaks. Others provide the equipment and leave them unmonitored, hence losing their functional integrity.

Knowledge: Much as students may not avoid interaction with some of the fire potential hazards like paraffin, gas cookers, alcoholic spirits, etc, it is very important to know how best to prevent and control fire outbreaks. However, most students do not know how to use fire extinguishers. However, the few who may know, aren’t knowledgeable about the type of extinguisher to use against a particular type of fire.  When an inappropriate fire extinguisher is used against a certain type of fire, fire may not go out but rather increases or spreads exponentially, causing more damage.

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Physical design and location of the hostel building: Enforcing adherence to the standard building codes is one of the measures to mitigate fire-related disasters. However, many hostels may not adhere to these standard codes. The location of hostel buildings is poorly regulated, making some hostels be sited in slums with informal settlements characterized by overcrowding and uncontrolled waste burning. Some hostels are found next to the garages and petrol stations, which increases their risk of catching fire in case of a fire outbreak. In these informal settlements, there is a lot of illegal and unprofessional electrical installation practiced by both hostel owners and the neighboring households which endangers students’ safety.

This article was co-authored by:  ONGEBO IVAN: BSc.Environmental Health Science, Finalist at Makerere University School of Public Health (BEHS, MaKSPH) and
Mathius Amperiize: Environmental Health Scientist (BEHS)

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