The huge fire at Sharon’s Mall on April 28 evokes the urgent need for adequate building construction with updated building codes, especially electric circuit designs and shut off mechanisms (like a series of valves along pipelines). With Guyana stepping into construction of mega shopping centers, the country still relies on archaic outdated systems in workmanship, architecture and sloppy enforcement of building codes. New building regulations (material quality, design, structure elevation, plumbing and electric codes etc.) are needed in the area of commercial buildings.
It is noteworthy that Home Affairs Minister, Robeson Benn, showed up and declared ‘the need for fire fighters to better understand the types of building construction and the challenges they are likely to face when engaging conflagrations’. He added that in the future, persons who would like to construct buildings higher than two floors, must have a fire alarm system, a sprinkler system and a rising main in place. Well the Minister is correct, but more than 5 years ago I indicated the very deficiencies he now talks about. Even worse, is the poor training and flimsy equipment firefighters have to perform their tasks; not to mention the wretched state of the country’s water supply structure.
Guyana needs a complete overhaul of its archaic building codes and safety standards even if prophylactic measures need to be instituted. Here are some solutions:
1. Buildings in Guyana, generally do not confirm to designate classification. Single family homes are converted into tenant occupied portions so that homeowners can accommodate family members and gather some income. The flaw in this is that there is the same original plumbing and electric systems that now have to support more lighting and appliances. As Guyana is entering the technology era, a host of appliances are utilized—almost always, invariably, from one outlet. A microwave oven, an air conditioner and an iron can total as much as 4,000 Watts—enough to induce overloading and precipitate (sparks) fire. Extension cords, most times hidden under carpet, with their multiple connections pose extreme fire hazard. Then there is the scenario where persons break off one of the prongs in three way plugs to accommodate plug-ins. The earth safety is thus discarded and overloading is facilitated.
2. Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings, prevalent in University and Hospital vicinities, need to be registered with the Building Department and given a Registration number. In this way inspection, say on a yearly basis, can be carried out, safety designs instituted, and complaints taken and investigated. A phone no must be established for this. Thirty-five persons occupying an uninsured building borders on insanity.
3. A minimum space between buildings, say 5 feet, is a requirement that needs to be incorporated into building codes and zoning regulations. This facilitates evacuation as well as allow access by firefighters.
4. Commercial buildings, especially attached ones, need sprinkler systems: a series of road-side connections to connect fire hoses which will distribute water inside a building in event of fire. Automated oxygen retardant systems need to be installed inside where an increase in temperature (say at 110 F) will trigger off the chemical spray. As this chemical sucks out the oxygen the fire will be greatly contained. Smoke alarms are cheap and should be installed along corridors which are the principal pathways for smoke.
5. Bonds, regardless of what is stored, need to be sectionalized, much like the compartments in ships such as oil tankers. Concrete separating walls with steel (fire-proof) connecting doors must be the code for storage warehouses. 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 (after all people cook with it) and needs to be stored outdoors: any leakage/explosion will dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere.
6. Perhaps the worst aspect of construction in Guyana is the electrical system, material and installation codes. This is in serious need of overhauling. Systems such as 100 Amperes distribution with Fly Back Breakers are the standard for commercial buildings such as warehouses, offices, shopping centers, and night clubs and so on. This is virtually non-existent. GFI outlets (with built in overload kick-out) rarely exist while electric wiring is predominantly vinyl coated (easily combustible) copper wire. Additionally, old wiring, coupled with corroded fuses, which do not trip or ‘blow’, poses severe risk of fire. As evidenced in the Cummings Lodge case.
7. Fire hydrants are taken for granted instead as seen as a means of emergency water supply. It is comical that hydrants invariably have little water in the “land of many waters.’
8. The Bureau of Standards, must arise from its slumber and monitor the very poor quality of electrical fittings and accessories (mostly from China) that flood the Guyanese market. And the Housing Authority must determine the safety features and occupancy of commercial buildings. The partitioning of buildings with the mere addition of a few walls to obtain an ‘apartment’ to get rental income has proven to have fatal consequences.
9. In the final analysis the Mayor of Georgetown should install rigid polices, which must be mandated by law, to prevent further tragedies. All buildings must carry insurance, have sprinkler systems and undergo a yearly inspection by the Fire Department where pitfalls will be identified and corrected. Fines must be imposed on all forms of non-compliance if Guyana is truly serious to prevent fires.
-By Leyland Roopnarine