Editorial | A burning issue in Guyana
The horrific dormitory fire which killed 18 students and a five-year-old boy early Monday morning plunged Guyana into three days of mourning, and has stirred many conversations about fire and emergency preparedness.
As the authorities in Guyana try to determine the cause of the inferno which also injured several others, a deeply disturbing picture is emerging, that of an angry 16-year-old student who took revenge after her cell phone was confiscated.
Even as we await the official findings, it is the kind of tragedy that should prompt school administrators and local safety personnel to examine their fire and emergency preparedness, and their current safety measures, to place them in a position to minimise the effect of fire on their schools.
Not to be ignored, also, is the need for clear policies, perhaps a national policy on the use of cellphones in schools. There are premises in Jamaica where cell phones are not allowed and people generally fall in line. Taking way cellphone privileges from young people is like depriving them of oxygen, and it can lead to confrontation.
In light of the current dry season in Jamaica, it makes good sense to revisit safety manuals to ensure that drills are being conducted, smoke alarms are working, and fire extinguishers are serviced and in good order, and that fire safety systems are in readiness to contain any fire which might occur.
The secondary school, located in the border town of Mahdia, is about 200 miles south of the capital, Georgetown, and is at the centre of Guyana’s push to improve education in the rural parts of the country. Many of the victims were indigenous children. Early reports say the windows of the building were grilled and the five doors were locked with keys. At the time of the fire, the keys could not be located. There are some reports that the Fire Department had flagged the grilled windows as a potential hazard.
It comes as no surprise that arson is suspected in the fire in Guyana. Insurers and firefighters have said that the majority of school fires are usually deliberately set. The other causes include electrical failure, kitchen fires, and equipment malfunction.
Jamaica has had its fair share of devastating fires. People of a certain age will have painful memories of Eventide Home fire, which killed 157 elderly women, and more recently, the Armadale Juvenile Correction Centre in St Ann in which seven girls died. Fire safety is a critical issue, particularly for children and the elderly.
Then, not too long ago, there was a dormitory fire at Westwood High School for girls in Trelawny after a student’s charging tablet ignited. In that case no one was injured. And before that, the school’s dining room was destroyed by fire. These events disrupt the students’ education and sometimes set them back for many years.
When one considers the staggering costs associated with rebuilding after fire and the emotional toll on students, staff and the community, it begs the question, how are these institutions preparing for the next fire? For example, should there be a requirement for sprinkler systems to be installed in these schools, which are generally very old?
In the pursuit of protecting students and offering them continuous education, comprehensive fire strategies are necessary. Where remedial action is required, they should be taken promptly.