Letter: The Windsor Forest fire was preventable

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana
Inset: Dead Rajendra Mohabir perished in a mid-afternoon fire that destroyed his Windsor Forest home

Dear Editor,

The recent fire on Sunday, February 12, at Seventh Street, Windsor Forest, West Coast Demerara was avoidable, or could have been minimal for many reasons.

Firstly, the electric power supply system of the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) entity badly needs overhauling, in view of constant blackouts (since I was a schoolboy, 40 years ago!), and with constant switching on and off, deadly high-voltage power surges are produced. According to reports, it is this power surge that resulted in sparking from the fuse box-controlled electricity distribution system.

Now, if the location of the box was away from combustible materials, this would not have precipitated any fire (unless the converse was done by placing flammable materials near the fuse box). Anyway, with appropriate electric design codes, and by using the correct material, such an occurrence would not have taken place. The death of 60-year-old Mr Mohabir, while greatly tragic, could also have been prevented. It remains a defying question if the GPL would assume responsibility for the onset of this disaster.

Guyana needs a complete overhaul of its building codes and safety standards. Here are some solutions:

1. Some buildings in Guyana generally do not confirm to the country’s building codes. Single-family homes are secretly converted into tenant-occupied residences so that homeowners could accommodate family members and get some rental income. The flaw in this is that the original plumbing and electrical systems for a single family have to support tenants with additional appliances for the same outlets. In other words, the electrical system in a single-family house is built to accommodate one microwave oven, several air conditioners, and a fridge, but having tenants means more appliances — enough to induce overloading of the electrical circuits. In some cases, extension cords are hidden under carpets, and their multiple connections could induce sparks from an overloaded system, which in turn could result in burning the carpet. Then there is the scenario wherein persons break off the earth safety prongs in three-way plugs to accommodate two-way plug-ins. There is no need to state that this is a serious fire hazard.

2. Single-room occupancy buildings (prevalent in hospital and university neighbourhoods) and other multi-family buildings should be inspected on a yearly basis; not only in order to prevent fires, but to see that they conform to their specific occupancy codes.

3. In Guyana, the building codes and zoning regulations should be updated to allow a minimum space of roughly eight feet between buildings, in order to facilitate evacuation as well as allow access to firefighters.

4. Given the spate of recent fires on commercial buildings, it should be mandated that all commercial buildings be fitted with modern sprinkler systems, to prevent their entire destruction in case of fire. Automated oxygen-retardant systems (halogens are often used) should also be installed inside commercial buildings, so that an increase in temperature (say at 110F) would trigger off the chemical spray which would reduce atmospheric oxygen, thus containing the fire. Smoke alarms should be installed in homes and along the corridors of commercial buildings which are the principal pathways for smoke.

5. Regardless of what is stored, bonds need to be sectionalised, much like the compartments in ships like oil tankers. Each compartment must be entirely sealed and fire-proofed. This, coupled with periodic safety inspections, must be the way forward. Storage of cooking gas containers must never be inside a closed building. Propane is highly flammable (we cook with it) and needs to be stored outdoors, where any leakage/explosion would dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere.

6. Perhaps the worst aspect of construction in Guyana is the electrical system, materials and installation codes, all of which should be updated to reach international standards. For example, the main power distribution centre in both residential and commercial buildings should be equipped with flyback circuit breakers in the event of an overload. GFCI ground fault circuit interrupter), instead of regular outlets (points), must be used wherever water is used, like kitchens and bathrooms. The circuit will shut down, along with others, whenever there is overload).

7. Fire hydrants, which are generally taken for granted by many, should be seen as a means of emergency water supply to out fires. For the safety of all Guyanese, young or old, the Bureau of Standards must make it its duty to monitor the quality of electrical fittings and accessories on the market, most of which are imported from China. And while these electrical accessories are cheap, the Bureau of Standards should not sacrifice life for cost. And the Housing Authority must determine the safety features and occupancy of commercial buildings.

8. In the final analysis, to prevent further tragedies, the authorities should put safety first, and institute polices which must be mandated by law. All commercial buildings must be insured, have sprinkler systems, and undergo a yearly inspection by the Fire Department, wherein pitfalls would be identified and corrected. Fines must be imposed on all forms of non-compliance if Guyana is truly serious about preventing fires.

Sincerely,Leyland ChitlallRoopnaraine