IT REALLY STINKS! - Sewage overflow swamps Old Harbour Fire Station
Imagine having to turn up to work every day to contend with an irrepressible faecal odour, sleeping with a cesspit under the same roof, and routinely having to run for cover from sewage overflow.
That’s the miserable life for almost 30 firefighters of the Old Harbour Fire Station in St Catherine, where one bedroom of a retrofitted house on Marlie Acres Drive had to be abandoned last week following a heavy downpour that flooded the station, causing the pit’s contents to cream the floor of the old structure.
The station is metres away from the constituency office of Everald Warmington, the member of parliament for St Catherine South Western.
Almost seven months ago, the firefighters were forced to leave a less-than-ideal location on South Street in the parish after the property owner gave notice for refurbishment.
If the relieved government workers thought they were going to get an upgraded facility, they were mistaken. Instead, it’s been a living nightmare since, an angry firefighter told a Gleaner news team as a light bulb dangled from its socket.
Except for poles bearing a tattered Jamaican flag and the flaming-red standard of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, the ramshackle conditions belie the building’s purpose as a fire station that serves the township of more than 25,000.
Strewn around the house are boards, metal, and old equipment, some of which were left to the elements because of a lack of space inside.
“The men used to use some of the equipment to exercise. We cannot do anything now,” the firefighter said.
The firefighter requested anonymity because clearance was not granted to speak to the media.
Inside, eight beds were counted that fitted in cramped quarters, clothes hanging on nails. There were at least two bathrooms, one of which was decorated with soil deposits that a serviceman said were grim reminders from the June 12 flooding.
There is hardly space to eat with ease as a bed captured some of the dining room accommodations.
Several of the lockers were mangled and could hardly fit some of the bulky fire gear used in emergency response. Initially, there was hardly any locker space, a firefighter complained.
Some of the personnel expressed fear of eating and sleeping so close to the gear they said were health hazards as they might have contaminants.
That led to the construction of a makeshift board room that enclosed a pit on the original housing structure, cementing the nightmare.
“It used to overflow every two weeks,” said a firefighter who requested anonymity because the person was not authorised to speak with the press. “The men have to run out of the station. Then you have the times when the smell just rises up. The place is in a deplorable condition.”
“The whole place is a challenge. It is too small. We hardly have any parking space. It’s a house that was just not suitable for a fire station,” another said.
The pit in the house has since been fully sealed and decommissioned by the landlord. A new one was dug outside, but the station is affected by a foul odour that did not escape the Gleaner team.
The firefighters at the Old Harbour station are spread across four shifts per day, but since the coronavirus pandemic, that has been changed to eight – with night personnel working a 24-hour shift.
Female firefighters could not be accommodated at the station because of the limited bathroom and bedroom space, the team was told.
The Jamaica Fire Brigade is aware of the “difficulties” at the Old Harbour station, and a recommendation on a new location is before Commissioner Stewart Beckford, disclosed area commander for St Catherine, acting Assistant Commissioner Troy Frazer.
But he could give no timeline on when a move would be possible. The two-year lease for the current property adds another complexity.
“I went at length and found a facility. It’s a contractual situation; you can’t just jump out of it like that. There are legal implications,” the acting commissioner said.
Frazer admitted that the conditions are not good because “it’s a house, and suitability, you’ll never get”.
“I strongly believe when one leaves his house, he should come in some comfort of similar or same,” he said.
The value of the lease could not be immediately ascertained.
The building has been inspected and a report is due by this week from the chief public inspector, said Dr Francia Prosper-Chen, the St Catherine medical officer of health.
Questions sent to the permanent secretary in the local government ministry, Marsha Henry-Martin, were not answered up to press time.
The local government ministry, now headed by Desmond McKenzie, has been aware of challenges facing Old Harbour for decades.
In 2005, then technical director in the ministry, Patrick Wong, told the Jamaica Information Service that the brigade had Old Harbour on its agenda for rehabilitation.
Fifteen years later, the workers are battling sewage, cramped living quarters, and equipment shortages.
Interestingly, the original Old Harbour Fire Station was reportedly abandoned almost two decades ago because it was deemed unsafe, leading to the renting of the South Street property and now, the current one.