Deadly Mahdia fire: CoI recommends inspectorate for dorms, modern security systems

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana
The aftermath of the May 21, 2023 fire at the Mahdia Secondary School Dormitory which killed 20 children and injured several others

The report of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the Mahdia fire has outlined several recommendations to improve the condition of dormitories across the country, and to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy, looking at the combined viewpoints of security, society and safety.

The report was handed over to President Irfaan Ali by Chairman of the CoI, Major General (retired) Joseph Singh, on Friday, and was released on Saturday. From the findings tendered, the Commission recommended that an inspectorate be set up to visit the dormitories which have been, or are being, retrofitted, in order to determine the extent to which they are in compliance with the recommended gender- sensitive standards for dormitories. This should also apply to dormitories that are intended to be constructed.

The Mahdia fire victims

Further, the Report detailed, “The visits should allow for the inspection of fire- suppression systems, emergency evacuation procedures, and assessment of first responder fire-fighting drills and capabilities. Compliance with the statutory schedules for fire drills at schools and dormitories must also be monitored and enforced.”

Additionally, technically competent individuals should be included in such inspectorate teams, and reports on the extent of compliance achieved are to be submitted to the relevant agencies for evaluation and follow-up action.

Furthermore, grills should be replaced with a modern security system, inclusive of secured fencing and cameras, to ensure a protected environment and assist in monitoring the entry and exit of all persons using the facilities.

On the evening of the May 21 fire, there were 57 female students in the dormitory – a one-flat concrete building measuring about 100 feet by 40 feet, with several heavily-grilled windows and five doors. The Commission heard, during testimonies, that the grills were installed to prevent the girls from escaping. Many students were trapped in the burning structure during the fire, and 19 eventually perished along with the son of the dorm parents.

An assessment into the education sector in 2017 identified grave neglect of duty bordering on recklessness by the persons vested with power during that period for the care and welfare of the country’s children residing in dormitories. It was also indicated that the state of dormitories must be addressed, and that attention must be paid to the level and quality of supervisors.

Moreover, in general, ‘House Parents’ are not trained for their tasks, have too many students to overlook, and students are taking advantage of them. Coming out of this CoI, continuous training was recommended for house parents and supervisors.

“The training must include training in evacuation procedures and the use of fire alarms and fire-fighting appliances. Further, we recommend that the ratio of supervisors to children in accordance with the MOE/ UNICEF Gender Sensitive Standards for Dormitory Schools in Guyana Report be implemented. This will provide more effective supervision and support to the students under the care of the supervisors,” the report stated.

The Mahdia COI also endorsed the Caesar Report’s observation and recommends that there be full consultations with the stakeholders – students, teachers and communities – to ensure that cultural, spiritual, and social values are incorporated in design of schools, dormitories and dining halls.

This is so that relocation of students from their community and family to another environment will not be traumatic, and will enhance and motivate students to enjoy their space while ensuring they are imbued with a ‘sense of responsibility for self-management, team work and social cohesiveness’.

From the testimonies, children at the Mahdia dorm were just confined to their daily routine and school, without any forms of socializing. It was recognised that this environment influenced their behaviour pattern – leading to experimentation with marijuana, vape, and other negative activities.

The Commission drew light on the need for resident Welfare Officers and persons trained in Guidance and Counselling, particularly for schools in the hinterland, and those with dormitories where teenage students are ‘undergoing the life changing experiences and emotions’.

“It is evident that these students need to be cared for and counselled, because they are particularly vulnerable to the lure of money and grooming by unscrupulous adults.”It was also recommended by the Commission that persons who were interviewed and who were diagnosed as requiring therapy and counselling be revisited. The CoI advised that it may be necessary to have the therapists and counsellors actually assigned to the community for periods of time, perhaps on a rotational basis.”

It was explained, “There are students, male and female, who survived and were not physically injured, but are emotionally scarred as a consequence of the impact of the tragedy. While such support services were extended for a six-month period, the requests have been poignant, and deserve attention…Periodic contact should be made with the Community Health workers in the communities from where students originated and a list made of those who still are in need of such support.”