• 24 Jun, 2024

As in Mahdia, rural East Indian communities are at grave risk when fire strikes - Mahdia tragedy must spark major reforms

As in Mahdia, rural East Indian communities are at grave risk when fire strikes - Mahdia tragedy must spark major reforms

As in Mahdia, rural East Indian communities are at grave risk when fire strikes - Mahdia tragedy must spark major reforms

The Mahdia student dormitory fire killing 19 young children must be a wake-up call for all Guyana, but especially rural East Indian communities which are more likely to suffer as Mahdia did. The Mahdia fire shows the inadequacy of firefighting equipment, inadequacy of fire engines, the long time it takes for a fire engine to arrive, inadequate water supply to fight the fire, lack of smoke alarms, and absence of fire extinguishers. Add to that grille work on windows and doors and that’s a disaster waiting to happen. There is an inequity in resources and services between urban and rural areas. Therefore, rural and Indian communities must learn lessons from Mahdia. We must redesign iron grilles on windows using hinges so they may open in the event of an emergency. A smoke detector is quite inexpensive but can save lives. Obtain one right away. Families should discuss evacuation strategies in the event of a fire. Most importantly, ask the Government to acquire more firefighting equipment and locate fires stations close to your communities.

The Mahdia students heart-wrenching tragedy that made international headlines must jolt all Guyana to be fire-safety conscious, and major reforms must be implemented for fire prevention, firefighting, and building codes. We do not have all the details as yet, but from what is known, there appears to be some key lapses. There must be an inquiry into this fire – probably one of the deadliest in our history. Whether there was criminal negligence will come out in an inquiry. The President must be credited for his alacrity in taking command of logistical response at Ogle, and declaring national days of mourning. The Minister of Education was there too with many pictures showing her offering hugs and comfort. Minister Benn who was there has much work to do to push for more fire fighting equipment. So nation, imagine what calamity would befall Guyana if there were to be an oil spill and Exxon does not provide full coverage for all liabilities? Can we handle it? Or each of us will be struggling to survive? It was a big job for us to deal with this horrific fire, how will we deal with an oil spill for which there is no proper insurance and guarantees in place as yet? Will we be doomed?

There are too many unanswered questions about this dormitory and the fire. Were there no fire extinguishers as reported? Why not? Was there only 1 dorm supervisor for a dorm with 60 people? There should have been at least 3-4 keeping watch.  Did the dorm not have several fire alarms? Why not? Did children have cell phones to call for help? Did Mahdia have only 1 fire engine? How many engines in Region 8? Lots of questions about capability of the fire services. One major problem appears to be grilled windows, which became a permanent feature of homes under both the PNC and PPP regimes because of ongoing rampant crime. Our buildings have become prison-like fortresses to ensure our security from criminal invasions. Several have died in fires because they could not get out on time because of iron grilles. Part of the reform must be to have grilles with hinges that can open easily to permit hasty exits from buildings. A Mr. Dion Thomas is reporting that the Essequibo Technical Institute has unsafe grilles, and nobody is listening to such complaints.

About a student setting the fire, we need to have eyewitness account from the surviving students. The Media needs to get to work to get the real story. Let the surviving students tell the story. Has that student been arrested? Why not?

We understand the wrath of protesters picketing for “justice” because their broken hearts are hurting. The PNC which issued a statement of sympathy probably has nothing to do with the protest which seemed badly timed when we are collectively nursing bleeding hearts. In the USA, schools must do mandatory fire drills, and fire inspectors do regular compliance checks and give reports. Mr. Changlee’s letter calling for heads to roll at the Ministry of Education might be a little bit harsh as the Minister or Ministry did not cause the fire (“Replace those not worthy of the responsibility given to them,” SN, May 23, 2023).

Our Mahdia Dorm children must not die in vain. The public must be vigilant to demand that national priorities include safety and security. We are spending US$34+ million on new ID cards – a solution looking for a problem. Why is that a priority? I suggest that our Government spends that money on real urgent priorities such as a national trash plan, firefighting and safety equipment, and a National Equity Plan where rural communities have equal access to education and services. May God comfort our nation in this time of sorrow. May we learn lessons from this fire so history does not repeat itself.


Dr. Jerry Jailall