Guyana: Fires and Fire Fighting – Stabroek News Editorial

By October 10, 2021.

The reality is that the capital has been subject to a series of disastrous conflagrations from its earliest days, and it can only be a source of incredulity that any older structures have survived into modern times at all. One might have thought that given Georgetown’s incendiary history the GFS would have been one of the most professional and efficient in the world. While there have been periods in the past when the training and performance of the service met something approaching international standards, as our editorial last Monday pointed out, its failings in response to the Brickdam Police Station fire were only too apparent.       

Fire destroyed 80% of the Brickdam Police Station  on October 2, 2021

It is not just the Fire Service and by extension the government which is at issue, but also the attitude of the professionals who have charge of public assets, as well as the population at large. Georgetown’s huge disadvantage is that until very recent times it was predominantly a wooden city. The Brickdam Police Station, an attractive historical building was also of wood, so what emergency fire arrangements were in place should a disaster happen? It did have extinguishers which it seems were used, but possibly at a stage when it was already too late to have any effect.

One presumes there was a fire alarm, but where were the smoke alarms? Where were the sprinkler systems which are now customary for public buildings in other jurisdictions? And as our leader on Monday asked, where were the fire hoses and sand buckets? Were there enough fire extinguishers to cope with a major inferno sited within easy reach of all important locations?  And were there any emergency response or salvage plans in existence? Where the latter is concerned, clearly not, since the worst loss was that of documentation. Since none of it was digitised one must presume it was kept in non-fireproof filing cabinets. Surely, one would have thought, at the very least it is just common sense to have backup for such critical documents.

The London Fire Brigade asks heritage sites to have a salvage plan which identifies priority items which need to be removed or protected, so fire crews can devise recovery strategies in advance. It also allows them to decide what equipment is needed to retrieve objects and minimise damage. One only has to think of Castellani House which shelters the nation’s art collection to see the wisdom of that approach. Then too there are institutions such as the archives and the National Library, although at least they have the virtue from a preservation point of view of not being of wood. That said, it should be remembered that even solid stone Windsor Castle went on fire. In any event there are all kinds of public buildings which would benefit from a salvage plan.

As for emergency response plans, every state and local government institution should have them, in addition to all private work locations. What to do in a fire should be posted on walls, and wherever possible there should be regular fire drills too. That particularly applies in the case of schools; panicky children are the last thing one wants in the event of a fire. They should be trained to evacuate a building in a disciplined and orderly way. Needless to say this country does not lack examples of schools burning down, one quite recently.

The government has made it quite clear that money has been poured into the Fire Service in recent times so it is properly equipped to perform its function. One does wonder, however, whether the service has had new developments in mind when upgrading its equipment. The city is growing upwards, so to speak, and it can only be speculated whether the GFS would be in a position to rescue citizens from the top floor of one of our higher buildings, for example, where they were prevented from escaping down the stairs past middle floors engulfed in flames.

Where new appliances are concerned one is reminded of the case of the 1863 Werk-en-Rust fire, which was attended by the pride of the Fire Service, a brand new steam-powered engine. Unfortunately, however, it was only provided with ten feet of suction hose and before they had scrambled to obtain enough to reach the river, two hours had elapsed and inevitably the fire had spread. There were manual engines on the scene, but for some reason they would not work; no doubt they had not been serviced.

Sometimes it appears as if simple common sense is what is at issue.  Why, for example, was the man who was later charged with arson of the Brickdam station allegedly given back his lighter by a policeman? Haven’t we had enough prisons set on fire by inmates at Mazaruni, Lusignan and above all Camp Street, not to have learnt a few lessons about the dangers when detainees are involved? It might be noted en passant that an anonymous writer to this newspaper who once worked for the GPF and is now in the US said that there were fire retardant beds, mattresses and pillows being used in correctional facilities all over the world, so why couldn’t this be done in Guyana? A piece of sponge from a cell mattress which was then attached to a wire was allegedly used to start the fire.

And then there is the matter of the fire hydrants more especially those in Hadfield Street. The GWI under the coalition government had announced it had put a number of city hydrants back in working order. Perhaps the powers that be at the GFS didn’t read the release, because in a Facebook post Attorney Nigel Hughes said that for an hour-and-a-half he and his wife informed law enforcement officials and some government officials that the hydrant in front of their office was functioning. The response he received was that it was not working, and blue paint on it indicated such. Later, he said, the residents of Werk-en-Rust managed to open it and water came “pouring out”.

Mr Sase Gunraj had a similar complaint: “They are being pointed [to] fire hydrants that are in working order and simply have to be put into service and up to now — I have been out here for over an hour and no attempt has even been made to even look for fire hydrants,” he told Stabroek News. One can only say is it not common sense for the firefighters at an early stage to try and open hydrants if local people say they are working, even if they believe they are not? They have nothing to lose, and probably less would have been destroyed than by accessing the river.

It might be the case too that the legislation in respect of fire prevention is out of date, and that the ever busy AG might like to look at it. One suspects that whatever is on the statute books is in any case ignored by the private sector, something which needs addressing. The city’s first fire regulations date back to 1803, when two engineers with two assistants each were appointed to manage two fire engines, which were manual. Every householder had to provide two leather buckets which were to be lent to the engineers when asked. The buckets had to be checked twice a year and the engines once a month. The engineers were to be assisted at a fire by twenty members of the coloured militia.

Following a disastrous fire in 1864, some very stringent laws were introduced, including one which required that only hardwood be used for external construction, and not American clapboard.

As for the causes of fire, they haven’t changed much in two centuries, arson being among the leading ones. In the earliest days it was suspected that the enslaved started quite a few of the fires, although no one was ever caught. Carelessness, as nowadays, was also not uncommon, and certain large conflagrations were stopped by blowing up buildings. Today, of course, we have GPL to add to the mix, and last week another major fire was averted at the National Insurance Scheme headquarters, also on Brickdam. It was caused by an overloaded electrical outlet in an office, and this time when the Fire Service was called the building was saved.

While one can exhort private citizens to check their electrical outlets and wiring, the latter of which tends to deteriorate in the humid tropics faster than it would in a temperate zone, it should be absolutely compulsory for public buildings to be subject to regular inspection. We simply cannot afford the loss of property and assets that is so common in what is supposedly this modern age.

But above all else, will the authorities do something to upgrade the training of the members of the Guyana Fire Service. All our safety depends on it.

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  • Laurence London  On 10/12/2021 at 12:28 am

    The article is too long. I will read it later. I do hope there is mention of the bloody wooden structures we hold so nostalgic. I remember when I worked with the local authorities roofs of houses had to be separated by a minimum of 20 ‘. I visited Guyana this august and by golly some of that regulations were not being followed.
    Don’t blame the firemen. We have roads built for donkey carts and the fire trucks are large.
    Work on having consistent power. Why don’t you Mr President make it mandatory for wooden homes to have fire extinguishers.
    It is easy to criticize and it serves no purpose to have external evaluators unless they are in your pocket or visa versa.

  • WIC  On 10/14/2021 at 1:59 pm

    The article is well written providing a good analysis of the various fire-fighting issues and problems past and present in the City and which led to the current disaster. To say it’s too long and will be read later but yet criticize it while suggesting that external fire evaluators would be subject to bribes indicates very narrow thinking.

    Most organizations in the world will bring in experts(in-house or external) to evaluate major problems including Fire and prevent/reduce further occurrences of same. Most experts in all fields of endeavor(I don’t know about Guyana), are satisfied with their incomes, not greedy and do a good job without the need for additional incentives.

    While the President correctly made the necessary public comments on the disaster, one needs to appreciate that most likely the day to day operations of the Georgetown Fire Service don’t fall under his purview. Perhaps the responsibility falls under a minister in his govt. or as is the case in many parts of the world, under the Mayor of the city council?

    Guyana is not the only country in the world where roads were originally laid out for animal drawn vehicles(have you ever visited London, England? do you know the history of the width of railway tracks across the world excluding China? try Goggle). The widening of roads in many cases may require the costly expropriation of land which is always unpalatable due to disagreements over fair value assuming the land space is available. Think of the problems between neighbors in Guyana when one believes that the other has placed his fence incorrectly and you should see the problems inherent in road widening.

    Even though censorship isn’t in place in this media, one should not try to become a legend in own one’s mind when writing but uninformed.

  • wally n  On 10/15/2021 at 12:08 pm

    “Someone Shrunk the Fire Truck” – San Francisco’s Response to Curving Streets and Vision Zero
    Yesterday afternoon, journalists and advocates were given a first look at Fire Engine 13, assigned to the station on the corner of Washington and Sansome in San Francisco’s Financial District. “This fire engine is narrower, not as long, and has a better turning radius,” said San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White. “It’s a beautiful piece of equipment.”

    if one’s will does not prevail, one must submit to an alternative.
    Streets ain’t going away…

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