Wickham, Douglas take heat for dereliction of duty, neglect in Mahdia dorm fire report

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Though concluding that the May 21, 2023 Mahdia dorm fire was an act of arson that claimed 20 young lives and that even a fully-equipped facility would not have yielded a different result, the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has called into question the lapses of several individuals in the events that led up to the fire, during the conflagration and even after.

While a poorly trained house supervisor was chided for her error in failing to contact the fire service promptly and failure to locate the keys to open the heavily grilled dormitory in a timely manner, more serious claims of dereliction of duty and neglect were laid squarely at the feet of Chief Fire Officer (CFO) Gregory Wickham and Ms. Annesta Douglas, the former Regional Education Officer for Region Eight.

“We consider it unfortunate and inauspicious that the Ryan Scott report which contained critical information in the interest of life and fire safety, was given scant regard by the CFO who admitted that of the 12 recommendations contained therein, his action was only taken in relation to that concerning fire hydrants,” the report noted.

Both Wickham and Douglas testified during the public hearings last year.

The Commission, in its final report handed over to President Irfaan Ali on Friday last, said it considered the diligence and dedication in the execution of duties of Guyana Fire Service Sub Officer Ryan Scott to be worthy of commendation and went on to highlight the “efficiency of this serviceman. His devotion to service is to be emulated by other service men and women in the Guyana Fire Service.”

Sub-Officer Ryan Scott

But failure to act on the report compiled by Scott made way for the Fire Chief to be accused of dereliction of duty.

“We interpret the CFO’s explanation that the standard operating procedure only required him to ensure the REDO was furnished with the report, as essentially passing off onto the REDO, the responsibility of ensuring that the emergency recommendations in the report were brought to life. We also find it regrettable that in all circumstances and even with all his experience as the most senior fire officer in this country, the CFO did not see the need, nor did he take the initiative, to communicate to the Permanent Secretary of his Ministry, the said emergency recommendations,” the report noted.

But further, claims of neglect were made of Douglas in the report.

“The conduct of the REDO was not far from that of the CFO,” the report noted.

Douglas received the report from Scott in early February 2023, almost four months before the fire but never acted on it. She claimed that’s he was reassigned the next day.

“We rejected the excuses proffered by Ms. Douglas to justify her inaction and found them to be spurious and vexatious. She gave no attention and showed complete disregard for the report. We are convinced that if prudent action was taken by the REDO, there was more than sufficient time for effective fire prevention systems to have been put in place,” the report read.

The Ryan Scott’s report only came to the knowledge of the Regional Executive Officer’s office after it became a sore point of contention after the fire.

Among the requirements/recommendations in the highly praised Ryan Scott report are:

  1. A suitable fire alarm system which can give sufficient audible warning throughout the premises must be provided.
  2. All final exits (doors) must be constructed to open outwards along the line of exit travel.
  3. Suitable exit signs red in colour on white background not less than 100mm in height, must be conspicuously displayed over all final exits.
  4. Precise instructions with actions to be taken in the event of a fire must be prominently displayed on the walls throughout the building.
  5. Suitable storage facilities (racks, shelves, cupboards, etc.) must be provided for all items. They must be constructed or situated in such a way that allows free and adequate passageway to be maintained.
  6. All items stored in the building must be neatly arranged leaving a minimum clearance of at least 30cm from ceiling level and 15cm in any other direction.
  7. No fuel must be stored on the premises without permission from this department.
  8. A high standard of housekeeping must be maintained throughout the building at all times.
  9. Grills must be removed from all windows immediately.
  10. Six (6) fire extinguishers along with six (6) smoke detectors must be provided and all Fire Extinguishers must be hung on brackets with their handles 1.4m from floor level to facilitate handling by persons of any height.
  11. Efforts must be made for all staff to be trained in the use and operation of firefighting equipment (fire extinguishers) and evacuation procedures.
  12. Hydrants must be installed. Note: the water main leading to the dorms is 2” in diameter.
President Dr Irfaan Ali receives the Mahdia COI report from Chairman of the Commission,Major General (Ret’d), Joe Singh (Photo: Office of the Presidnet/January 19, 2024)

During a simple ceremony on Friday at State House – the official residence of the President – Chairman of the Commission Major General (Ret’d), Joe Singh handed over the MAHDIA COI REPORT to Dr. Ali, accompanied by the other commissioners, attorney Dr. Kim Kyte- Thomas and Chairman of the National Toshaos Council (NTC), Derrick John.

This printed version of the report, Singh said, was unanimously supported by all commissioners who received their Instruments of Appointments on August 10, 2023, and began public hearings on September 15 and November 10, 2023.

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