The fire which claimed the lives of four family members in New Amsterdam at the end of January produced a number of comments on our website about safety in homes surrounded by grillwork. The case recalled that of cultural worker, Laxhmie Kallicharran, who died in similar circumstances because she had no escape route from her burning house. While this latest tragedy just underlines the need for homeowners to pause and consider avenues for retreat before they transform their properties into fortresses, it also raises other questions quite unrelated to the decisions made by private householders about their security.
Guyana’s urban areas still boast a large number of wooden buildings, and even in the days when the electricity supply was not as unstable as it later became, devastating fires were hardly an uncommon occurrence. Shortly after the foundation of the capital at the end of the eighteenth century there were fire regulations in place – no troolie roofs for instance – as well as two engines to respond to fires when they did break out. As Georgetown in particular expanded, sourcing water became an increasing problem which had no satisfactory solution until the advent of the Water Works in 1866, the laying of pipes throughout the city and the installation of fire hydrants.
There once was a time (although members of the younger generation will not be able to recall it) when fire hydrants were maintained and water flowed in Georgetown and New Amsterdam twenty-four hours a day. Nobody needs to be told that this is no longer the case. The problems with the hydrants probably had their origin in the erratic water supply from the end of the 1970s onwards, as well as in the economic difficulties which militated against properly equipping the Guyana Fire Service (GFS). Then of course there was the scourge of vandalism, which still continues. As recently as 2004, the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) said that out of 510 hydrants in Georgetown, for example, fewer than 90 were functional. What the situation is now is anyone’s guess.
However, as we reported in our edition of February 1, New Amsterdam has been the beneficiary of 46 new hydrants in recent times. The problem is that none was functioning on January 24, although in the case of some of them a certain amount of water could be accessed through the hydrants’ pits. In fact, we reported the fire service as obtaining a limited amount of water from the chamber of the hydrant at the corner of Charlotte Street and Strand. Eventually, however, they had to resort to the Republic Road canal, although that was choked with vegetation. (It has since been cleared, we understand.)
In addition, sources in the fire department told this newspaper, according to our report, that water was not turned on in a timely fashion, an allegation to which GWI did not respond, although we understood that the fire-fighters had been told by the utility that it would take some time for water to enter the mains. As is was, therefore, when the fire service arrived to find the Charlotte Street building already engulfed in flames, the limited supply of water they had brought with them was quickly exhausted, and although eventually there was back-up from tenders from the Rose Hall and Albion estates, they were still confronted with the problem of insufficient water to tackle an inferno of considerable magnitude. According to witnesses, it was not until after 3 am (the fire is thought to have started around 2.03 am) that the fire-fighters were able to access water on the scale necessary, although it must be noted that the GFS has vehemently denied this.
Whatever the actual time frame, what is not in dispute is that despite its early arrival on the scene the GFS was confronted with a water crisis from an early stage, and that four persons, two of them children, died. Could they have been saved? Stabroek News was told that the fire service did have the equipment to break into the house, but they could do nothing to save the lives of the four. That would most likely have been true in circumstances where there was insufficient or no water; what we will never know is whether the family could have been rescued if the fire-fighters had had an unlimited supply of water at their disposal.
The question is, of course, why are 46 comparatively new fire hydrants not functioning? Our reporter was told that the contractors did a poor job during the installation of the emergency pipes and that the faults have never been corrected. In the first place, of course, one has to ask whether under the contract sloppy work attracted any penalty because it should have done and it should have been applied; and in the second, why have the problems with the hydrants not been rectified? The reporter was given to understand that there were faulty hydrants in Georgetown too, and that sometimes the fire service had to resort to the old system.
It will be recalled that the capital experienced two destructive fires in the downtown area, one in 2003 and the other in 2004, and the question came up then about who held responsibility for the hydrants. It turns out that the law is not clear on this subject, and while the GFS inspects them, any defects found are reported to GWI, although that utility had told Stabroek News previously that there was nothing in the law assigning responsibility to it. After the disasters of 2003-04, a committee had been set up to look at the question of the management of fire hydrants, but whether it came to any conclusions or not, no one has ever discovered. In any event, nobody in Guyana’s urban areas should sleep soundly at night on the assumption that in the event of a fire the GFS will have access to water from the hydrants.
Have we learnt nothing from all these major fires to which we have been subject over the years, particularly this last one which cost four lives? One thing we can be sure about is that there will be others, and we need to be rather better prepared in response terms than we have been in recent years. Aside from the needs assessment of the GFS recommended by the DFC and any subsequent measures which would improve their level of efficiency, the authorities should address the matter of the hydrants with some urgency, beginning with a small amendment in the law making GWI ultimately responsible for them. If the different agencies are allowed to pass the buck because of a lacuna in the statute books, there will never be any progress.