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How safe are our schools?
The fire at Presentation College in San Fernando on Friday morning was unfortunate, but it may well turn out to be the worst thing happening at the best possible time. The fire was said to have begun at 9:30 in the morning in a basement storeroom at the school, when it could be discovered early and acted on. Students and staff at the school responded sensibly and bravely.
While students were being evacuated, three form six students joined members of staff to work on controlling the fire. The vigorous blaze defied ten fire extinguishers and two garden hoses before it was brought under control by a fast responding Fire Service.
While the blaze was not immediately attributed to an electrical problem, officials at the school acknowledged that the school’s AV room was so oversubscribed that the equipment in the room and the air-conditioning unit could not be used simultaneously.
Fire officers noted that much of the damage caused by the blaze was contained because it began in a room made of reinforced concrete with steel doors. In June 2011, lamenting the lack of an evacuation plan for Port-of-Spain, Mayor Louis Lee Sing pointed out that the city is home to 52 schools. While his concerns are noted, the question must be raised about each of those schools and how prepared they are, individually, for potential disaster and disruption of school activities.
From all indications, the Presentation College fire happened at a school that proved capable of quickly making the right decisions about the blaze that flared up on Friday morning. Students were evacuated from the school and taken to safety, flammable materials were removed from the room adjoining the blaze and the staff and students battling the blaze were able to put ten functioning fire extinguishers into service with impressive speed and then to supplement that with water from garden hoses.
How many other schools could match that efficiency of response? How many have a suitable complement of functioning, tested fire extinguishers? How many can point to a fire or disaster safety plan that outlines paths out of the school buildings and muster points where students and staff are expected to gather?
When last did any school run or explain a fire drill evacuation and disaster response plan to the student body where such plans exist? Do schools have appropriate fire suppression systems installed in areas where flammable materials are used, such as science laboratories or where there is a large aggregate of electronic equipment, such as computer rooms?
Have these computer rooms been connected to appropriately prepared electrical systems designed for these 21st century power demands? The greatest danger posed by Friday’s successful outcome at Presentation would be to assume that other schools are as ready to deal with an out-of-control fire as the San Fernando school proved to be.
Many schools in Trinidad and Tobago are more than 60 years old, built in the mid-20th century education push. Most “new” schools were constructed for the split-secondary schools strategy of the 1980’s. These schools are now more than 30 years old and predate the electrical demands of modern technology.
Is the wiring in these ageing schools capable of passing inspection by modern standards and are these schools ready for the power loads of a school system that is working to utilise more technology in the classroom? If there are a lot of questions in play here, it’s because the answers to them must be sought by school principals and maintenance officers on their premises today.
The fire at Presentation College, brought quickly under control and without injuries, is a warning bell that school administrators should heed and act on appropriately.
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