Sat | Feb 16, 2019

Editorial | Prepare firefighters for high-rises

Published:Friday | February 8, 2019 | 10:00 AM

A year and a half ago, in the wake of the fire of London’s Grenfell Tower that killed 79 people, this newspaper urged the Jamaican authorities not only to take note of that tragedy, but to complete a review of the island’s fire brigade to respond to a similar catastrophe and formulate a strategy so to do.

We don’t know if the administration paid heed to our suggestion. No one either acknowledged or commented on our observation. However, this matter ought to now to be a priority of the Holness administration. Senior people in the Jamaica Fire Brigade, it seems, also have similar concerns, with the burgeoning change of Jamaica’s skyscape and the likelihood of its acceleration.

Last October, at the opening of a 10-storey, luxury apartment building in St Andrew, Prime Minister Andrew Holness claimed that investors were lining up for permits to construct more, and higher, ­residential and commercial buildings of 20 floors or more. The only constraints, with the country’s macro-­economy being stabilised, were roads and water and the ­country’s high rates of crime.

“Once we get all those three things aligned, within five years, the skyline is going to change,” Mr Holness said.

There are good reasons to believe the prime minister. The Government itself is completing, as a gift from China, a high-rise building in the old downtown section of the capital to house its foreign ministry. Next door, the business conglomerate GraceKennedy will soon be able to occupy its new high-rise headquarters.

These buildings will join the long-standing Bank of Jamaica, Scotiabank, and more recent Digicel complexes in changing the skyline of the Kingston waterfront.

Uptown, in New Kingston, hotelier Kevin Hendrickson has talked of building a 28- to 30-floor building. Further, recent upward adjustments to the density limits have encouraged real estate development to shift to multistorey apartment complexes rather than town houses.

None of these are the skyscrapers of Qatar and Dubai, but they represent a significant shift from construction patterns in Jamaica, which will demand new thinking on how – and of what kind and quality – the Government provides services to communities. Safety, including fire mitigation, and the State’s ability to respond to fires, if they occur, must be part of the revised agenda.

A FRIGHTENING THOUGHT

A senior officer, who preferred not to be identified, but who was quoted by this newspaper, suggests that the fire brigade doesn’t have the equipment to adequately respond to the emerging circumstance and is concerned that he hasn’t heard of the Government’s plan to upgrade service.

“I am talking about proper escape chutes that can stretch to the height of those buildings, proper turntable ladders, upgraded pumps, and … other new technologies that we don’t even know about,” he said.

The Grenfell Tower was 22 stories, in the range of some of the buildings now on Jamaica’s drawing board. London firefighters had trouble dealing with that blaze in part because of the inadequacy of some of their equipment, including the height of ladders.

Preparing for catastrophes, of course, isn’t only the Government’s job. Architects and developers have a part in designing buildings that mitigate hazard. That includes not using, as was the case with the exterior cladding on Grenfell Tower, material that is highly flammable. This will require robust enforcement of rules by regulators.

Indeed, it is a frightening thought, based on the word of the firefighter, that in the absence of ­specialised equipment, a high-rise fire in Jamaica would cause the professionals to be “all over the place like headless chickens”.