Rohee calls for civilian oversight of fire service

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…says firefighting in Guyana needs improvement through training, implementation of Fire Prevention Act

Following a series of serious fires in Guyana that could have been better managed, former Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee has called for strong and decisive civilian leadership at the level of the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) Board and the successful implementation of the Fire Prevention Act.

Earlier this month, President Irfaan Ali flayed the GFS for its “poor response” to a fire that wreaked havoc at the Brickdam Police Station, completely destroying at least five departments and buildings in its path including the main building that housed the Enquires and CID Departments.

The President said it was upsetting that the Fire Service could not effectively respond to a fire in its ‘backyard’ when the Government would have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its operations.

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President Irfaan Ali (center) and Minister of Home Affairs, Robeson Benn following the Brickdam fire

UNADDRESSED FOR YEARS
Giving his take on the effectiveness of the GFS in a letter to the editor, Rohee said that it all boils down to the recomposition of the GFS Board which needs to include civilian leadership, an input that can lead to the effective implementation of the Fire Prevention Act Ch. 22:01.

During his time as Ministry of Home Affairs, he told of the former chairwoman of the Fire Advisory Board, Doreen Decairies, who was trying her best to address the shortcomings of the Guyana Fire Service through the Act.

On her radar was the decrepit state of the GFS’ firefighting assets, the non-functioning of fire hydrants in Georgetown and the insufficiency of firefighters’ risk allowance. Despite her efforts, she was unable to convince government agencies or departments responsible to take action.

“I inherited Doreen’s frustration, but soon realized that it was grounded in certain realities. While an inter-agency approach was necessary to find a solution to the problem, the Georgetown City Council was broke and the new PPP/C government had no intention of handing over millions to be squandered on wasteful projects nor to be spent on useless foreign junkets,” Rohee said.

“On the other hand, the Ministry of Works was saddled with a number of community projects which the PPP/C government had placed at the top of that ministry’s agenda.”

Meanwhile, Rohee said that the Ministry of Home Affairs was also caught up with crime management at a time when the crime situation was spiralling out of control due to the likes of Rondell Rawlings aka ‘the Fineman gang’.

The veteran politician noted these cases not as excuses but as facts at the time. He also emphasized that whenever the matter of fire hydrants was raised at Cabinet meetings, the then Home Affairs Ministry recommended solutions but there was always the issue of money.

COMPOSITION OF BOARD
However, Rohee said that what he realised over time is that the composition of the GFS Board has been an issue for decades and should be revisited.

The composition includes representatives of the Guyana National Bureau of Standards (GNBS), the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Mayor and City Council (M&CC), the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA), the AG’s Chamber, the Ex-firefighters Association and the Guyana Manufacturers and Services Association (GMSA).

Noting his observation, Rohee said: “In the first place, attendance at meetings tend to be below expectation. Instead of the nominees listed attending, lower-ranking personnel came unprepared to meetings totally unaware of the Fire Prevention Act and knowing little or nothing about their respective roles on the Board. With a weak Chairman, the GFS representative would seek to take control of the meetings, diverting it from its mandate, eventually making the Board a toothless poodle tethered to the whims and fancies of the GFS.”

This, he said, caused ministerial intervention and a stern warning to the GFS to put the Board back on track to assert its autonomy. Rohee pointed out that these measures were reinforced by appeals to his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that fit and proper representatives were sent to serve on the Board.

“Strong and decisive civilian leadership at the level of the Board is critical to successful implementation of the Fire Prevention Act,” he underscored.

Furthermore, referencing former President Cheddi Jagan, he said that the country leader had once made it mandatory that civilian-composed oversight bodies be put in place at government agencies and departments. Though there were some objections, this enabled civilians to contribute to brainstorming ideas and improving transparency regarding policies and procedures.

“Oversight bodies help identify strengths and weaknesses. And though there were some manifestations of passive resistance, President Jagan’s policy initiative proved an excellent mechanism that facilitated effective and efficient execution of Cabinet and ministerial mandates…experience has shown that civilian oversight can play an important role once given strong lead,” Rohee put forward.

Some of the alternative actions the former Minister said was taken under his leadership were the building of over six new fire stations, portable firefighting equipment best suited for interior locations, new fire tenders for the GFS, professional training for local firefighters through British experts, a 5- year Strategic and Implementation Plan for the GFSm the establishment of a civilian-staffed Strategic Management Department to oversee implementation of the GFS strategic plan and more.

MANAGEMENT AND TRAINING NEEDED
In his letter, the veteran politician pointed out that under the APNU+AFC, the GFS Board was not reconstituted until 2018 — three years after it assumed office. Meanwhile, after the PPP/C regained power, the Board was reconstituted in April 2021.

When the first Board of new members was addressed by Minister of Home Affairs, Robeson Benn, Rohee said that several issues were drawn to their attention including failure of the GFS to make effective use of assets, insufficient strategic management of assets and service deficit in training and engagement in firefighting.

Right after the Board was installed, a fire broke out at Montrose on the East Coast of Demerara and Rohee said that the handling of this fire proved the deficiencies within the GFS.

“Montrose borders the neighbouring village of Mon Repos where a pump station with a huge reservoir of water is readily available. After the fire tender’s water supply was exhausted, rather than proceeding to the nearby Mon Repos pump station to refill and return to help extinguish the fire at Montrose, the tender sped off to Georgetown to refill its water tanks only to reappear some two hours later,” he recounted.

“By that time, the cries at the scene of the fire was reminiscent of those similar to ‘All gone Lake!’ Just like it was when the Brickdam Police Station was reduced to a pile of ashes. Today, criticisms are rife as regards the GFS’ ineffective use of its assets compounded by an absence of proper strategic management of its human resources as well as a serious deficit in training and engagement in firefighting.”

Following the fire at the Brickdam Police Station, President Ali warned that people within the GFS will be held accountable for failing to make proper use of the resources at their disposal.

“In this country, people would have to be held accountable for their actions. We cannot be making investments in state apparatus and state institutions and do not get the results from those investments…and the response is not about assets, the response is about attitude, it’s about commitment, it’s about discipline, it’s about professionalism, it’s about being in a state of readiness,” he said.

However, the President has also noted that the Government will enlist fire experts from the diaspora to train local firefighters to professionally and adequately respond to fires



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