Deputy Fire Chief retires with Bitter-sweet memories
By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
June 8, 2003

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`“I am a little sad because people with whom I have been associating with for the greater part of my life and the service I am now leaving. Yet, at the same time, I am excited. I am excited about the challenges that will face me as I enter a new phase of life. I am not going to be just sitting on my laurels.’ - Deputy Fire Chief Mr. Vibert Williams

`…I have seen so many innocent children burnt to death … The first time I actually saw this, I vomited; I was so shook up, I cried. This just tells me that perhaps we in the Fire Service need to be doing more than we already are in terms of public awareness programmes. Perhaps, we need to use the media, both print and electronic, some more. We’re already there, but we need, perhaps, to widen our broadcast to schools.’ - Mr. Williams

PRECISELY 35 years and seven months ago, a young pupil teacher made a decision that would not only fulfill a childish dream, but would also chart the course the remainder of his working life would take.

Today, on the eve of retirement, he looks back with bitter-sweet memories at a time well spent, no pun intended, in service to the Guyana Fire Service (GFS).

“As a boy, I was always attracted to the bright, shiny, what we called ‘fire-reel’ in those days,” says Mr Vibert Vernon Williams, who worked his way up the ranks from ordinary fireman to Deputy Fire-Chief, a position he’s held as of last October.

Taking a trip back down memory lane two Saturdays ago with the Sunday Chronicle,

Williams, who was cited in 1995 by the late President Cheddi Jagan for ‘Distinguished and Dedicated Service beyond the normal call of duty’, recalled that it was around mid-1967 when he took the historic plunge that would lead to a career change.

At the time, he was doing pretty well for himself, earning the princely sum of $92 teaching English at his ‘alma’, the now defunct but much-talked-about Progressive and Preparatory Institute, then located on lower D’Urban Street, the street which once had the enviable reputation as ‘the street that does not sleep’.

“But when I saw that there were vacancies for firemen, I thought I would give it a shot,” he said. “One of the crowning reasons also, was that the Fire Service was starting at $117 per month, plus $20 per month house allowance.”

Of the 200 like-minded young men who wrote the entrance examination that September day at Dolphin Government School, only 22 of them were successful.

Since becoming an officer in 1985, a typical day for him, “if there is no fire, that is,” began at around 07h45. After going through his correspondence and attending to other routine matters (such as training, which came under his purview), he would, sometime during the course of the day, touch base with the parent agency, the Ministry of Home Affairs, as has been his wont for the past 18 years.

However, in case there was a fire which necessitated his being on the scene, he would hasten there so as to supervise the operation and generally lend moral support to his men, particularly the juniors among them.

One of the biggest fires he has ever attended, he recalled, was the one in South Cummingsburg which not only swept ‘Cunningham Yard’ on Thomas Street, so named after the owner, Dr Albert Cunningham, but also threatened neighbouring ‘Stable Yard’, as the sprawling adjacent property which looks onto Middle Street was called, as well as the once-popular Empire Cinema immediately east of it.

Also coming under threat that fateful day somewhere in the mid-70s was the family home of former national cricketer, Romain Etwaroo, who lived on the property immediately north of the Cunningham’s in the little cottage with the lacquered verandah.

A rookie fireman at the time, Williams recalls being among the first servicemen on the scene that day.

Another ‘biggy’, he recalled, was the one which gutted the Victoria Hotel on Avenue of the Republic (formerly High Street), which once occupied the empty corner lot just across the way and over the canal from the Supreme Court.

While he cannot readily recall the origins of these two particular fires, Williams says statistics have shown that in a number of cases, big fires are primarily caused by carelessness of one sort or the other, though in some instances, they have been found to be as a result of deliberate attempts at arson, again “for any number of reasons”.

Asked about the findings of investigations into the inferno which temporarily put the New Thriving Chinese restaurant out of business while it was housed in the Park Hotel complex on Main Street, and the one in which cultural icon, Laxhmie Kallicharran, perished a little over a year ago, his initial reaction was a cynical laugh.

To answer the question, however, he said: “I can’t recall exactly ....but I prefer not to make too much of a comment on that Park Hotel fire because, to the best of my knowledge, the matter is still sub judice.”

In Kallicharran’s case, he said: “What we found there is that the building was extremely grilled up.” As for the rumour going the rounds that foul play might have been the cause of the tragedy, he said: “As far as the Fire Service is concerned, we didn’t find any evidence of this.”

What has been happening of late, he explained, is that the crime situation in the country has so escalated out of proportion that it is making people prisoners in their own homes. One only has to take a walk down Regent Street, west of Camp, to fully appreciate the enormity of the situation, he said.

“They’re [the stores along Regent Street] so grilled and shuttered that if there is a fire there, everybody will die. And it would be virtually impossible for the Fire Service to get in, if they don’t have a ‘Sherman’ tank. The situation is that bad.”

Something that people have got to understand, he said, is that: “Yes! You must have some sort of security for your property, but at the same time we need to balance it. And I am afraid that because, perhaps, of the situation in the country, people are going overboard.”

Asked whether Guyana is sufficiently equipped to investigate suspected arson and how does it actually treat with such cases, he said, somewhat guardedly: Yes! And, No!

“Yes! In the sense that we in the Fire Department do not have a lot of forensic capability. However, we have the experience to give a qualified opinion as to whether or not a fire was likely to have been maliciously set or an attempted arson.

“Once we say that,” he stressed, “then the Police are the ones who take over and do the prosecution, because we [GFS] don’t really prosecute. But, one of the things I’d like to see in the Service, is, perhaps, for want of a better term, a better forensic capability. We don’t have that kind of capability right now.”

As to why is it that we don’t, the father of four said: “Finance could be one of the reasons, but at the same time, I must be honest and say that I don’t think at the present time we have personnel who are trained in that particular area. For example, for you to have a good forensic capability, you’ve got to have qualified chemists; engineers; people who can look at things from a macro level.”

The good news, however, is that the Ministry has recognised this failing and is, in fact, doing everything possible to have youngsters who have shown some sort of potential in this field undergo training. “But it’s gonna take us some time to get there,” he warned.

On the frequency with which fires occur these days, he said: “There are fires every day. However, the public only gets to know about the big ones; the ones that get out of hand.” Though he’s not certain about the exact figure, he estimates that “we have something like two to three electrical fires a day.”

For any number of reasons, he said, from slack connections; to a break in the insulation which can pose a potential danger in the event of rain or exposure to water, unquestionably one of the greatest conductors of electricity; [and] having three and four electrical appliances plugged into one outlet, which can cause a circuit to be overloaded and subsequently lead to overheating.
He doesn’t take kindly to the use of ‘power strips’ either, popular as they are and highly recommended though they come. “From a fire safety point of view,” he said, “you should have only one, at the most two, electrical appliance(s) pulling power from one source.”

Noting the popular trend of acquiring new electrical appliances as one’s fortunes improve, he said: “What people ought to do is get a qualified electrician to run additional points, or certify whether a building can take the extra load.”

Any system, no matter how sophisticated, he said, is apt to break down, once it is overloaded. And in that situation, there is likely to be a fire.

Asked how often it is he comes across a fire which results in death, he said: “Too numerous to mention….and each time it hits you afresh; this should never have happened. I have seen so many innocent children burnt to death … The first time I actually saw this, I vomited; I was so shook up, I cried.

“This just tells me that perhaps we in the Fire Service need to be doing more than we already are in terms of public awareness programmes. Perhaps, we need to use the media, both print and electronic, some more. We’re already there, but we need, perhaps, to widen our broadcast to schools,” which he has been instrumental in implementing.

“But the only way I think we can make any serious impact on fire wastage in the country and deaths by fire,” he said, “is to get more involved in education at all levels. We realise that if we can catch the children young and train them to be fire safety conscious, then they’ll grow up to be more responsible adults.”

Asked about any incidents over the years where a fireman has been known to die in the line of duty, he replied in the negative saying: “We have been fortunate in that respect…but I do know we’ve had a number of injuries.”

He himself was seriously injured not so long ago, when he attempted to assess, with only a wet rag held across his nose as protection, the gravity of a reported gaseous chlorine leak at the former Guyana Sewerage & Water Commission (GS&WC) on Vlissengen Road.

As he recalled, he was on his way home on the East Coast the afternoon in question when he learnt of the incident. Upon reaching the scene and seeing that the men that had responded to the call were all young and inexperienced, he decided he would step in and give them a hand.

“And so, very stupid of me, I just took my rag; wet it; put it across my nose; and ran in to see what the situation was, with the intention of coming back out to tell the guys what action they ought to take.

“That was rather stupid and I’m lucky to be alive to tell the tale….I started coughing; I couldn’t breathe; and the next thing I knew, I woke up a patient in the Public Hospital.”

Four others were also hospitalised during that incident.

Then there was the incident during the Queens College fire when a young fireman named Troy Theophyll was severely injured when a burning beam came crashing down on him. Fortunately for him, he had on his regulation helmet “so he wasn’t too badly injured.”

The gimp he, Williams, has in his left leg is a trophy from the Victoria Hotel fire when he was knocked silly by a projectile gas cylinder. But it all comes with the territory, he said, again with that deceptive but infectious laugh of his. “I suppose you could call them occupational hazards.”

On the downside, however, he is not too happy with the quality of service the Service has been giving the nation over the years. “We’ve not had the kind of equipment to give the nation the sort of protection it ought to have….but I must hasten to add that there are a number of factors responsible for that.”

Fire equipment does not come cheaply, he said. “You just can’t go and pick up a fire tender as you would a car from a showcase.” The three 800-gallon ones we recently acquired have set the government back by some $130M. This brings to 14 the total number of tenders serving the entire nation.

One each serves the wards of Alberttown, Campbellville and West Ruimveldt in Georgetown; Ogle on the lower East Coast; Leonora in West Demerara; the township of Corriverton on the East Berbice; and the predominantly mining township of Linden on the Upper Demerara River.

There are, also, two tenders each at Central Fire Station in the city and the township of New Amsterdam in the county of Berbice, and three at Timehri, near where the Cheddi Jagan International Airport is located.

There has never been any on the Essequibo Coast, but this lapse is currently being addressed in the construction of a fire station, which is near completion, at Anna Regina. It is hoped that this building will be ready for occupation some time this month.

They’re still to get into Bartica, regarded as ‘the gateway’ to the mineral-rich hinterland, and “to have a bigger presence in Linden.”

On the thorny issues of faulty fire hoses and the allegation of ‘fire-reels’ turning up at fires with very little or no water at all, he said: “We’re taking some licks for that,” he agreed with customary candour about the former, but denied the latter outright.

“First of all, let me make this point quite clear…that has never happened. The fire tenders always go with water. But one needs to appreciate the fact that the tenders only have a limited amount of water. When that limited amount of water is finished, then the firemen have to access water from somewhere else.”

That somewhere else ought to be the myriad fiery-red water hydrants we were accustomed seeing, and even taking the occasional seat on, dotted all across the city some years ago but are no longer evident due to vandalism, or some canal or trench or wherever there happens to be an adequate volume of water.

As things stand right now, he said, the new tenders only have the capacity to fight what he calls “a normal-size fire,” and that is only “if you catch it early.”

According to a recent survey, as much as 70 per cent of the hydrants in Georgetown and its environs have fallen prey to vandals, who make a fortune selling the couplings as scrap metal.

Thankfully, he said, the Guyana Water Inc. has been very prompt in repairing or replacing these vandalised hydrants whenever the Service brings them to their attention.

Another sore point is the problem of crank calls. Not a day goes by, he said, when there isn’t some prank call or the other. The calls are made as often as two to three times a day.

“But I suppose that is also an occupational hazard,” he said, as firemen the world over also have this one complaint.

In closing, he left us a few useful hints that will no doubt come in handy in the case of an emergency - such as always having a fire extinguisher at hand.

Carbon dioxide as an extinguisher, he said, has a number of properties that make it good for certain types of fires. “First of all, it is not at all poisonous as one has been led to believe; we need it to live.”

It is safe for use around the kitchen, as it has no harmful effects on foodstuff. It is also safe for use in cases of minor electrical fires, once the source of power is turned off. It does not damage electrical or electronic equipment, he said. They can be easily repaired and used again.

He made the point too that “using water as an extinguisher in certain situations is a definite non-no.” Two examples which readily come to mind are petroleum and electrical fires, for which it is recommended the use of either dry chemical, dry powder or carbon dioxide.

And, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Shakespeare best put this inexplicable feeling into words when he said: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

He’s not exactly sorry to see the back of GFS; but he’s not exactly ecstatic either at the thought of leaving.

Said he: “I am a little sad because people with whom I have been associating with for the greater part of my life and the service I am now leaving. Yet, at the same time, I am excited. I am excited about the challenges that will face me as I enter a new phase of life. I am not going to be just sitting on my laurels.”

But this is a little secret he wants to hang on to a little while longer; at least until he and wife Jacqueline (to whom he has been married almost 33 years and upon whom he has conferred the title of honorary member of the Service) return from a well-earned vacation in Dominica and the Cayman Islands where the couple has two sons.

He did relent enough to say that one of the two organisations that have shown an interest in acquiring his services has to do with his being a professional social worker.

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