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Fighting the flames

It is not the first time that an elderly person and a child have died in a fire simply because they could not get out of the building. And, while it may also not be the last, measures can be taken to reduce such tragic incidents.

Around midnight on Tuesday, 83-year-old Joyce Edwards and five-year-old Akell Motar, whom she was babysitting, perished in a fire in Ms Edwards' home at Prizgar Lands in Laventille. Persons who attempted to rescue the woman and the child when they saw smoke and flames coming from the house were foiled by the iron bars of the burglar-proofing. This has become a common theme in fire-related deaths, even in areas far less crime-prone than Laventille.

In May 2010, an 11-year-old boy and a 22-month-old baby were killed, along with their grandmother, grandfather, and their father. In August 2009, fire claimed the lives of four children, aged two to 13 years, and a pregnant 32-year-old and a 22-year-old woman. In 2008, two children and their mother died in a fire because they could not get past their burglar-proofed windows, as did another mother and her two small children in 2006.

In the latest tragedy, residents of Prizgar Lands latched on to the inadequate water supply as the main reason for the failure to prevent the deaths of Ms Edwards and Akell. But, even if there had been a proper water supply, the fire officers might not have arrived in time to rescue the woman and the child.

In all these tragedies over past years, the common factors have been the burglar-proofing, the children, and the socio-economic status of the victims. Generally speaking, upper- and middle-class persons do not die in fires. That is partly because they don't usually have to light their homes with candles or pitch-oil lamps and partly because the wiring in their houses or apartments are properly installed or, when problems occur, they are immediately checked.

So what can be done? The Fire Service, through public messages and other means, has long been educating citizens about fire safety. Their warnings, however, may be failing to reach those persons who are most at risk. Apart from advice on what precautions to take to prevent a fire, and what to do if a fire breaks out, perhaps action from safety experts and insurers on burglar-proofing may help reduce the odds of people dying in this way.

Programmes are needed to promote approved safety designs of burglar-proofing with provisions for emergency exit. Most importantly, such grillwork should be subject to legal approval after fire or insurance inspections.

Burglar-proofing safety must come to be seen for what it is: everyone's business.

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