Rigid policies needed to prevent further tragedies

Dear Editor,
Much has been written on the Mahdia fire tragedy, thus it may be redundant to pile on the various outpourings of anger and grief. However, some proposed safeguards can be of great assistance.
All fires are preventable, and almost all – except arson – are caused by irresponsible and substandard workmanship.
There have been previous similar fires, yet no safety standards were ever instituted. On August 31, 2008, a fire broke out in the girls’ dorm at Waramadong Secondary School. Three of the 12 students there at the time: 11-year-old Zanita Sam, 13-year-old Savylin David, and 13-year-old Sharmileza George, all of Kubenang, Upper Mazaruni in Region Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni), perished in its wake. The entire building, which had no electricity, was destroyed.
In December 2007, the boys’ dormitory of the Bartica Secondary School, also in Region Seven, was completely destroyed in a fire of unknown origin. All of the 26 boys housed there at the time had managed to escape unharmed, but had lost almost all of their belongings. There was no Fire Station at Bartica back then, but officers from the city had later travelled to the community to investigate what caused the conflagration.
The recent disaster which claimed 19 young lives is ample testimony that there is, in Guyana, a dire lack of concern for the safety of people and property by the housing authorities. No warning systems like smoke alarms and automated sprinkler systems were in the dwelling; while escape equipment like ladders to climb to the roof were never installed. Tragedies like this cannot be attributed to carelessness, but rather to a don’t-care mindset.
Guyana needs a complete overhaul of its archaic building codes and safety standards, coupled with periodic inspections by Housing and Fire Safety agencies. Presently, many dwellings – with their poor electric wiring and overloaded circuits, coupled with inferior fixtures – are death traps waiting to claim more victims.
Here are some solutions:
All persons who work in both Public and Private Sectors must be cognizant of the five primary methods that are employed worldwide in cases of fire. The acronym RACEE aptly depicts this: <R = Rescue> anyone in immediate danger. <A = Alarm:> Call the Fire Department. <C = Confine> the smoke/fire by closing doors and windows. <E = Evacuate> all persons. <E = Extinguish> small fires with portable fire extinguishers.
Buildings in Guyana have no classification. Single family homes are converted into tenant-occupied portions so that homeowners can accommodate family members and get some income. The flaw in this is that there is the same original plumbing and electrical systems that now have to support more lighting and appliances. As Guyana enters the technological era, a host of appliances are utilized almost always invariably from one outlet.
A microwave oven, an air conditioner and an iron can total as much as 4,000 Watts — enough to induce overloading and precipitate (sparks) fire. Extension cords, most times hidden under carpets, with their multiple connections, pose extreme fire hazard. Then there is the scenario where persons break off one of the prongs in three way plugs to accommodate plug-ins. The earth safety is thus discarded, and overloading is facilitated.
Single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings, prevalent in university and hospital vicinities, need to be registered with the Building Department and given a registration number. In this way, inspection – say, on a yearly basis – can be carried out, safety designs instituted, and complaints taken and investigated. A phone number must be established for this. Thirty-five persons occupying an uninsured building (near the University) borders on insanity.
A minimum space between buildings, say 5 feet, is a requirement that needs to be incorporated into building codes and zoning regulations. This facilitates evacuation as well as allows access by firefighters.
Commercial buildings need sprinkler systems: a series of roadside connections to connect fire hoses which will distribute water inside a building in event of fire. Automated oxygen-retardant systems need to be installed inside, where an increase in temperature (say at 110 F) will trigger off the chemical (mostly halogens) spray. As this chemical sucks out the oxygen, the fire will be greatly contained. Smoke alarms are cheap, and should be installed along corridors, which are the principal pathways for smoke.
Bonds, regardless of what is stored, need to be sectionalised, much like the compartments in ships such as oil tankers. Concrete separating walls with steel (fire-proof) connecting doors must be the code for storage warehouses. This, coupled with periodic safety inspections, must be the way forward. Storage of cooking gas containers must never be inside a closed building. Propane is highly flammable (after all, people cook with it) and needs to be stored outdoors, where any leakage/ explosion will dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere.

Perhaps the worst aspect of construction in Guyana is the electrical system, material and installation codes. This is in serious need of overhauling. Systems such as 100 Amperes distribution with Fly Back Breakers are the standard for commercial buildings such as warehouses, offices, shopping centres, night clubs and so on. This is virtually non-existent. GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets (with built in overload kick-out) rarely exist, while electric wiring is predominantly vinyl coated (easily combustible) copper wire. Additionally, old wiring, coupled with corroded fuses which do not trip or ‘blow’, poses severe risk of fire – as evidenced in the Cummings Lodge case.
Fire hydrants are taken for granted, instead of being seen as a means of emergency water supply. Regular water pressure monitoring needs to be instituted.
The Bureau of Standards must monitor the very poor quality of electrical fittings and accessories that flood the Guyanese market. And the Housing Authority must determine the safety features and occupancy of commercial buildings. The partitioning of buildings with the mere addition of a few walls to obtain an ‘apartment’ to get rental income has proven to have fatal consequences.
Burglar proofing using metal bars can be a feature of being penny wise and pound foolish. Any metal barrier must be of a gate (open & close) mechanism with a metal sliding rod which can only be opened from the inside.
In the final analysis, the Housing Department should install rigid polices to prevent further tragedies. All buildings must carry insurance, have sprinkler systems, and undergo a yearly inspection by the Fire Department, where pitfalls will be identified and corrected. Fines must be imposed on all forms of non-compliance if Guyana is truly serious about preventing fires.

Leyland Chitlall