The economic losses and social disruption caused by fires demand that fire prevention be placed at the heart of the national conversation on how to deal with hazards and disasters. The recent fires have caused us to re-examine some of the side effects of these tragedies.
The Jamaica Fire Department said since 2018 there have been more than 750 building fires, killing 25 and causing more than $400 million in damage. Our markets, where hundreds of Jamaicans trade their produce and wares, appear to be the most vulnerable to the mysterious fires, which have had the effect of severely crippling the livelihoods of those operating in these spaces.
Such startling statistics should have prompted leaders in our municipal governments to take fires seriously by implementing measures to reduce their impact, especially on small business operators. Clearly, after the crying and wailing of the victims ended, there was no transformative change to bring about the necessary improvements in fire prevention.
It is concerning that authorities are generally unable to identify the source of these market fires, although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that careless disposal of burning objects, faulty electrical wiring, heat-generating appliances faulty, improper storage of flammable waste and arson are some of the triggers.
FIRE EMERGENCY PLANS
All civilizations have had to deal with disasters, including fires. One can rightly ask, what can municipalities do to avoid such fires? We suggest they start by making fire emergency plans for each market and public building. By performing audits, they can quickly identify vulnerabilities and invest in new security tools that provide safeguards and improve evacuation.
Fire safety drills should be practiced regularly so sellers and buyers know how to respond in the event of a disaster such as a fire or earthquake. Smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and sprinklers are among the fire prevention equipment that could be installed in commercial premises, most of which we believe are not insured against fire and other risks.
It would be remiss not to re-emphasize our concern for the fire hazards posed by the proliferation of multi-storey residential buildings, particularly in the corporate sector. Do they comply with current fire safety regulations? How vigilant are regulatory authorities in their oversight responsibilities? How are firefighters equipped to better serve the country?
The Firefighters Act places a huge responsibility on the municipality via the firefighters for the management of fire risks. It includes the inspection of buildings and the imposition of sanctions in the event of violations being detected. In light of the growing concerns of industrial safety professionals, we urge that fire protection violations not be tolerated, that strict enforcement be supported by the use of emerging technologies, and that the importance of education is included in the overall fire risk management objective. Indeed, education should begin at the very beginning of a child’s school career, thereby fostering a cultural understanding of the dangers posed by fire.
No one can accurately predict the next disaster, whether natural or man-made, but with proper risk management that takes into account all aspects of fire protection measures, damage to life and property can be minimized. This is a small investment compared to the alternative destruction that can result from disasters. Safer buildings benefit all users. All countries, especially vulnerable developing states, must recognize the significant threat these events pose to lives, livelihoods and the environment.