Mahdia COI: Mae Thomas says was never informed of issues affecting Mahdia Fire Station

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By Sharda Bacchus

Shardabacchus@newsroom.gy

The former Permanent Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry, Mae Thomas, says the ministry was never informed of the deficiencies and absence of key firefighting tools at the Mahdia Fire Station in Region Eight.

And if they were, efforts would have been made to ensure that the issues were “immediately” addressed.

Thomas testified under oath on Tuesday before the ongoing Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the deadly fire that claimed the lives of 20 children at the female dorms of the Mahdia Secondary School on May 21, 2023.

Her appearance was in response to a summons which was issued by the Commission last Friday.

Thomas’ testimony appeared to be in response to the Fire Chief (ag), Gregory Wickham and the officer in charge of the Mahdia Fire Station, Ryan Scott, who both testified earlier that they faced a lack of human and technical resources at the facility which prevented their effective response to the tragedy.

Former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Mae Thomas appeared before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Mahdia tragedy (Photo: News Room/ October 10, 2023)

But Thomas told the CoI that these issues could have been easily dealt with given the fact that the Home Affairs Ministry has a 24-hour open-door policy to cater for emergencies and would accommodate the head of the agencies at any given time.

“Each agency, in this particular instance, the Fire Chief, they have to tell us what is required of their agency and once it is there…we will take it to the Ministry of Finance and we will defend it at the level of Parliament,” Thomas contended.

When he appeared before the CoI, Wickham said the Mahdia fire station did not have fundamental firefighting tools such as breathing apparatus. He said the fire service was not able to acquire them due to budgetary constraints at the time.

In response to this, Thomas, who served as PS for three years at the ministry, pointed out that while there were instances of budget being reduced or cut at the ministry’s level, “funding was never a challenge.”

In fact, Thomas explained that if there was an instance whereby funds were not available at any given time, there is always the option of a supplementary budget to be explored.

An overhead view of what now remains of the dorms of the Mahdia Secondary School following the deadly fire

She maintained that the ministry was never informed of the need for firefighting tools in Mahdia.

“If there is a need for them to go to supplementary, they would go to supplementary. Whatever any of the agencies were lacking under the ministry, saying that we don’t have funds was only one way out,” Thomas said.

Months before the fire, an inspection was conducted at the dormitory after which a number of recommendations were made for actions to be taken, including the installation of fire safety and prevention mechanisms.

This report, according to the Officer in Charge of the Mahdia Fire Station, was submitted to his superior, but little to no action was taken.

Questioned about this by attorney Keoma Griffith, who is leading evidence into the inquiry, Thomas said at no point was this report brought to her attention.

“At present, I don’t recall seeing this exact report or with a note to myself…I also noticed that it is not CC (copied) to me,” she said.

Noting that such a report needed “urgent” action, Thomas further told the CoI that if it was brought to her attention, she would have taken “immediate” action.

“I probably would have written to my colleague PS (Permanent Secretary) at Ministry of Education …and Minister Benn…for action to be taken,” Thomas noted.

As a matter of fact, Thomas said priority is given to remote areas such as Mahdia.

Upon being further questioned as to whose responsibility it should have been to ensure the inconsistencies were addressed, Thomas said it was the Chief Fire Officer.

“The Head Office (Ministry) would have depended on the agency to bring to our attention ‘we need this’…The Fire Service does [have] a reasonable amount of allocation to their current line that could buy some of these items,” Thomas contended.

Thomas noted that up to a few months ago, the Fire Service was operating at three-quarters of the required staffing capacity.

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