“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. — English proverb

The Zambian government on 13th September 2017 unveiled 42 fire trucks at a total cost of $42 million. Much debate has ensued on the One Million Dollar price tag per truck. I won’t get into that debate but I am more interested in something far more important.

I commend the government for doing something tangible about the endless fires we keep experiencing in the country, especially at markets. I am however wondering whether buying expensive high-end fire trucks at $1 million each was the best use of $42 million to try and deal with the problem we face.

I did a quick 5 minute research online and found that you can get a brand new fire truck for as cheaply as $50,000 from China on Alibaba.com (the biggest online retailer in the world) and as much as $1.5 million for the high end trucks that have 30 meter ladders, outfitted with all sorts of gizmos and meant for large cities with skyscrapers and high population density with typically 5 million or more residents.

Here is a list of the approximate populations of towns in Zambia with at least 100,000 people or more as at 2016:

1. Lusaka 1,750,000
2. Kitwe 500,000
3. Ndola 450,000
4. Kabwe 200,000
5. Chingola 185,000
6. Mufulira 150,000
7. Livingstone 134,000
8. Luanshya 130,000
9. Chipata 116,000
10. Kasama 101,000

Looking at these numbers which total only 3.7 million, I find it hard to justify spending a million Dollars to send a fire truck to Kasama or Chingola. What large buildings are there and how many fires occur per year? Even if we sent two $1 million fire trucks to every town on the list above, we still have 22 left over. Even if we add 2 more for each of the top 3 towns, that still leaves us with $16 million worth of trucks which shall go where? Kalabo or Chadiza?

The main point here is that for about $20 million (maybe even less), I think we could have easily bought 50 fire trucks by buying 5 expensive ones at $1 million each (landed cost) for the top 3 most populated towns (3 in Lusaka and 1 in Ndola, 1 Kitwe) and buying 45 cheaper trucks worth around $300,000 for the rest of the country.

A brand new 15 meter long, 4 meter high Mercedes Benz truck I found on Alibaba.com with a long ladder, 5 axles and 16 tyres costs about $100,000 before shipping and insurance to Lusaka which maybe can add another $100,000 to the price at most. Even if we spend another $5 million on accessories, training and protective equipment for fire fighters, we would still have $17 million left over.

Then we could have invested the remaining $17 million in fire prevention as the wise English proverb above says. We could have spent on infrastructure in strategic places in our cities like fire hydrants, hose-pipes, smoke alarms and automated water sprinklers coupled with CCTV in markets. We can set up a 24 hour toll free fire support center that has phone lines, Skype, WhatsApp and other major instant messaging platforms where people can send pictures or video in real time.

We can set up a special “Fire Reserve Squad” in the same way as police reserves and we can train literally hundreds of squad members all over the country who can be summoned to help whenever there is a fire. This squad can be hired to conduct quarterly fire safety and prevention workshops countrywide.

However, the biggest gains are from a more robust process of issuing fire safety certificates and monitoring by inspectors. I wonder whether any fire inspector has ever visited City Market, Kapalala Market or Chisokone Market in the last 20 years to see if they are fire compliant. Why not buy 50 cars at $20,000 each for fire inspectors the same way ZRA bought 40 cars for tax inspections? That will only cost a million Dollars.

Do District Councils and other authorities ever demand for fire extinguishers, hose-pipes or smoke alarms before they give a go ahead for people to open newly built markets or the many zillion shopping malls? Why can’t anti-fire equipment be installed at markets through the levy marketeers pay?

Owners of tall buildings must be compelled to maintain or install anti-fire equipment henceforth through regular inspections and penalties. Why do we always have to over-react when a few simple steps can stop this fire problem?

Why do we wait for grieving mothers on TV after a market burns down to do something? Why do we have to keep fund-raising for marketeers whenever there is a fire when the same money could have been spent making markets safer by installing simple equipment like fire extinguishers and smoke alarms? Why can’t markets be forced by law to take out a group fire insurance policy? We are forced by law to pay motor vehicle insurance, but markets are left scot free. Why, oh why???

Fire engines in my view only solve one third of the problem because oftentimes, it may take long for information to reach the fire department that there is a fire and for them to get to the site, by which time it has done a lot of damage. We have had too many cases of fire engines going to put out a fire but there is no water in them or they take two hours to get to the fire site. Total insanity if you ask me.

How come the City Market fire did not have fire engines on site within 5 minutes which is what would be acceptable considering the short distance from Church Road and low traffic between 5am and 6am when the fire started?

Smoke alarms and automatic water sprinklers would do a far more effective job of putting out a fire at a market than any million Dollar fire engine. Why pay a million Dollars for one fire engine that is parked 95% of the time when you can spend the same money in a far better way that requires far fewer fire engines? Even if we agree that high quality fire tenders cost a million Dollars, investing in effective fire prevention makes at least half of them irrelevant ($21 million).

A typical ionization smoke alarm which detects fires costs between $10-$60 depending on the features of the smoke alarm. At $50 each (including shipping and insurance), you can buy twenty thousand (20,000) smoke alarms in a million Dollars which come with a 10-year warranty. Imagine how many offices, markets and buildings you put 20,000 smoke alarms in.

You can buy an anti-fire water sprinkler for as little as $0.50 (fifty cents or K5) on Alibaba.com and total costs including shipping to Zambia and installation are around $30 per square meter based on a five minute check on the Internet. A million Dollars can get you more than 33,000 square meters covered. That’s more that 3 hectares or 8 acres. This can go a long way since not every square meter needs to be covered.

I do not claim to be an expert in these matters but simple ten minutes research and analysis shows that we could have spent the $42 million far better and far more effectively. I hope our leaders and technocrats are taking note since some of the ideas discussed can still be implemented going forward.

If we can spend K2 million to get public submissions on something as inconsequential as leaving the International Criminal Court, why couldn’t we spend on public submissions on solving the fire problem? We have many brilliant Zambians who would gladly contribute and we can get better outcomes than always reacting to fires at great cost when simple solutions exist.

Or am I being naive and it is politics as usual? Fire politics in this case.