There needs to be a disaster preparedness programme

Dear Editor,

The tragedy of the fire at St Joseph’s Mercy Hospital is most regrettable. It is another wake-up call for the Guyana Fire Service (GFS), the city engineers, the insurance companies and the Civil Defence Commission (CDC).

A long time ago (nearly three decades) a Disaster Preparedness Programme was envisaged by the CDC, which was to include the retrofitting of old wooden buildings in GT with new wiring and electrical components. The fire department had the responsibility for ensuring this programme was given priority. But stuff happens.

Around 1987 David Gratz, a fire prevention consultant of NY visited Guyana on a mission to examine the needs of the fire department, and was given a grand tour (by yours truly) around the wooden city of Georgetown and its Victorian architecture.

How far the Guyana Fire Service got with the programme is not easily ascertained. Perhaps it has a report on the progress made. In the meantime citywide disaster preparedness plans are imperative for every institution dealing with mass occupancy at any given time. This would include schools, hotels, hospitals, churches, sports stadia, community centres, banks, restaurants, storehouses, businesses, etc. It should be imperative that the owners/management of all the above structures prepare and have disseminated at various levels their evacuation plans.

Concomitant with evacuation plans is the need to have security officers trained as fire wardens on every floor (especially of multi-level structures) to follow the plans in the event of a tragedy. Business continuity planning is almost alien to the local community, but daily the need for future prevention planning in local businesses is becoming obvious. In most scenarios, as in the case of floods, people have to fend for themselves with the help of good samaritans. This must now be meaningfully addressed.

In the light of the losses incurred with fire tragedies, the insurance agencies have a role to play in ensuring that the owners of every insured building prepare and present  upon demand  (before insuring) their premises’ disaster plan. A disaster plan in the professional context would be referred to as a business continuity plan, and would look at the possible loss in any disaster and the recovery efforts. It would evaluate the time-frame for recovery and the needs of employees during the period of recovery.  This programme could be mounted promptly with the GFS working in collaboration with the CDC and the insurance companies.

Yours faithfully,
Seopaul Singh

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