COI into deadly Mahdia fire: Understaffed, ill-equipped station faced uphill battle

20 children dead in May this year, the officer in charge at the station told the Commission of Inquiry Wednesday.

Ryan Scott also said he did not have enough fire fighters to respond and those available had to contend with a 12-year-old fire tender that had a number of deficiencies. He said that an inadequate supply of water resulted in fire fighters experiencing setbacks during the response.

But despite this, Scott, in response to questions from Chairman of the inquiry, Major General (Ret’d) Joe Singh said that the Mahdia fire station was in a position to “effectively” responded to the fire.

He, however, agreed with attorney Kim Kyte-Thomas, who is one of the Commissioners of the Inquiry, that if the necessary tools were available at the time, the response would have been “better”.

A new fire station was commissioned in Mahdia in 2022.

According to Scott, in keeping with protocols, a total of five fire officers are required to respond to a fire. However, at the time of the fire in May this year, he said only three firefighters were on duty at the Mahdia fire station.

And while he admitted that the fire station was understaffed when the fire broke out, Scott pointed out that the Mahdia fire station is normally supplemented by auxiliary firefighters.

Auxiliary fire officers are persons from the community who are trained by the Guyana Fire Service to assist in the response of fires. This initiative is one that was rolled out in remote and hinterland communities. Mahdia is one of those areas.

The COI further heard from Scott that Mahdia, Region Eight does not have landline service.

As such, he said in the event of a fire, reports are made to his personal cell phone.

Now, he said there are two numbers which were assigned to the fire station by local service provider, Digicel. This, Scott said was put in place after the fire.

According to Scott, the Mahdia fire station was informed about the fire at the Mahdia secondary school dormitory some 15 minutes after it had started.

Upon arrival, to the scene, he said the building was already engulfed in flames. As such, he said fighters immediately went into rescue action after learning that persons were trapped in the building.

Ryan Scott pointed out the area which was used to gain entry into the building. (Photo: News Room/October 4, 2023)

But during this process, while efforts were being made to put out the fire, Scott said the tender ran out of water, resulting in firefighters including himself being forced to go a far distance to source water.

“There was a mobile pump…I gave it to the auxiliary firefighters….I took the fire truck and went about two miles away to shuttle water,” Scott told the COI under oath.

He added, “I left the fire scene….I cleared the drain and eventually we were able to get water…but the auxiliary firefighters they had some difficulties, due to the distance and the drains were clogged and so”.

And after battling for several hours, Scott said the fire was extinguished after which the burnt bodies of 14 children were discovered. The five other children died at the hospital.

Scott further told the COI that just months before the fire, at the dormitory, the Guyana Fire Service carried out inspections at public buildings in the community during which the school dormitory was inspected.

Following the inspection, he said it was determined that there were no fire alarms, fire or smoke detectors in the building. As such, he said a series of recommendations were made to ensure this is addressed in the event of a fire.

This include the removal of grills from the dormitory windows, ensuring all exit doors are easily accessible, display of exit signs and the display of instruction throughout the building outlined on what actions can be taken in the event of a fire.

Scott said it was also advised for fire hydrants to be installed and that all staff be trained in the use of fire prevention equipment and evacuation.

And although a report was prepared and submitted, Scott said little to no action was taken to ensure that the recommendations were implemented.

“I had discussion with the DREO (Deputy Regional Executive Officer) and the REO (Regional Executive Officer) because I explained to them if we are going to get serious with fire prevention measures we need to start internally,” Scott said.

He added, “I take a proactive approach. I copied one (the report)….so they can have a first-hand look on things”.

Public hearings into the CoI continue on Thursday.