Fire Chief blasts sections of business community’s indifference to fire rules

Fighting fires amid the tightly packed, cluttered community of Regent Street buildings comprising a significant section of the urban commercial sector remains one of the biggest challenges for the Guyana Fire Service according to Chief Fire Officer Marlon Gentle. And the Chief Fire Officer, who says that he was personally involved in fighting several major fires in the urban business community since joining the Fire Service in 1984, has told Stabroek Business that the indifference of some members of the business community to regulations designed to reduce the risk of fires places sections of the commercial capital in constant risk of disaster. “I believe that there is an urgent need for more serious and purposeful discourse between the Fire Service and the business community about addressing this problem, Gentle told Stabroek Business in an exclusive interview earlier this week.

Firemen battling last Friday’s Regent Street inferno. (Inset is Fire Chief Marlon Gentle)
Firemen battling last Friday’s Regent Street inferno. (Inset is Fire Chief Marlon Gentle)

Speaking in the wake of last Friday’s Regent Street fire that destroyed three buildings and consumed millions of dollars worth of goods, Gentle said that much of one of the city’s main thoroughfares comprises old wooden buildings. “What you see are several very old wooden buildings, many of them former dwelling houses that have simply been converted into business premises without any regard for the need to take account of fire safety. “ Last Friday, despite the extent of the losses we were lucky, very lucky. It could easily have been the entire block and more.  My assessment is that the firemen who fought the fire did an excellent job.”

The Chief Fire Officer told Stabroek Business that there was an urgent need for the business community to revisit aspects of their fire prevention arrangements. He cited the need to examine and replace old electrical wiring, the creation of reliable exits, the need to maintain on-premises fire-fighting equipment and the need to re-examine storage practices as concerns which sections of the business community need to face and remedy. “We should bear in mind that many of the buildings that are now used as business places were not originally built for the purpose. Some of them have been converted to business premises without a great deal of adjustment being done to the structures. In some cases what may have been a verandah some years ago is now a storage bond.”

In a subsequent interview with this newspaper Presi-dent of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chandradat Chintamani said that he shared Gentle’s view regarding the disposition of some business owners to fire safety. “There is evidence that some business enterprises are only concerned about the bottom line. It is true that we have received expressions of concern about fire-related transgressions from the Fire Department. The serious risk of fires in sections of the business community clearly gives rise to   the need for us to take fire prevention far more seriously.  In fact a point has long been reached where we ought to make it mandatory that businesses embrace every regulation and take every precaution to protect goods and property and ensure the safety of their employees,” Chintamani who told Stabroek Business that he had since visited the scene of the fire said that he was fully supportive of Gentle’s view that the Fire Service did an excellent job. Based on what we all know of the Regent Street area the fire could have done a great deal more damage,” he added.

Meanwhile, both Gentle and Chintamani told Stabroek Business that they were prepared to meet to discuss ways of raising the level of consciousness among business owners of the need to take more precautions against fires. “We have met with the business community before and we are prepared to do so again to address this issue,” Gentle said.

And according to the Chief Fire Officer the intensity of last Friday’s fire and the extent of the damage were aided by the nature of the contents of the destroyed buildings. “The buildings were stocked with clothing, carpets, electrical items and cosmetics. Together, they represented a concoction for conflagration,” Gentle said.

Gentle who declined to comment on the details of the fire ahead of the anticipated investigation would only say that it appeared to have been electrical in origin.

He said that the Fire Service responded as soon as it was summoned adding that it appeared that there may have been efforts to douse the blaze before the Fire Service was summoned.

And according to the Chief Fire Officer the changing architectural landscape of the urban commercial centre continues to present the Guyana Fire Service with a range of new challenges. “Space considerations have compelled people to build up so that we now have more multi-storey buildings in the commercial areas.

What this means is that the Fire Service must enhance its capacity to fight high-rise fires.  The service has now acquired more equipment to support us in that area. Additionally, we are seeking to acquire equipment that allows us to move even greater quantities of water to fires to take account of the problem of water availability that we sometimes face,” Gentle said.

However, the Chief Fire Officer told Stabroek Business that responding to the challenge of averting disastrous fires in commercial areas was not an issue for the Fire Service alone. “The problem requires a collective response.

We need to ensure that these new high rise buildings are compliant with the building code and that they are equipped with all of the necessary infrastructure to respond to fires and mindful of practices that prevent fires,” Gentle said.

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