“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
It will take a few years to fit fire escapes and other fire safety devices in Housing Development Corporation (HDC) buildings because of the number of housing units, says HDC managing director Jearlean John. The T&T Guardian had asked John about the fire escapes that were mandated by the prime minister and promised by Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal in December 2011 after a fire killed four people in the Trou Macaque Housing Development.
“We have done a lot of work,” John said. “It is not only fire escapes, it's about health and safety on the whole. We're taking this incrementally. “Whilst we’re installing fire escapes where they’re needed and intended, we’re also putting in fire detection and suppression devices, such as smoke detectors, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, signage and implementing training drills.
“It is a multiple layered approach to the fire escape issue and we're talking about approximately 10,000 units, so it’s not something that will happen all together in one year. The progress will take a few years because there are so many units.”
She said some of the buildings didn’t need fire escapes, such as two-storey buildings, on the basis of the US National Fire Professional Association’s (NFPA) Life Safety Code 101, which stipulates that only buildings above three storeys must have fire escapes installed.
John also said the HDC had invited requests for proposals from a team of technical experts for the design and construction supervision of fire escape staircases and other safety enhancements for multistorey housing estates. She said all buildings would be evaluated on the basis of the NFPA Life Safety 101 Code, which is observed by the Fire Services of T&T and is an internationally accepted code.
“Any buildings that are found to deviate from the requirements of the NFPA 101 will be evaluated and retrofitted to ensure statutory compliance,” John said. “Even for buildings that are currently in compliance, we are ensuring that more than adequate signage are in place and training is made available in the usage of fire protection devices, for example, fire extinguishers, fire alarms and evacuation procedures.
“This education drive is still ongoing.” She said some of the factors the HDC had to take into consideration were that some of the buildings were 30 to 50 years old; the tendering and design process; whether they had the structural integrity to withstand the additional weight; and in some cases relocating residents to allow the installation of fire escapes.
John said another Catch-22 challenge posed by the older buildings was balancing security, for example installing burglar proofing on windows, with fire safety which can pose potential fire traps.
She said new housing estates such as Clifton Towers in Port-of-Spain, will be outfitted with fire escapes and other fire detection and suppression devices, such as those installed in the HDC’s Oropune Gardens Development in Piarco, where some of the 20 affected families from the Trou Macaque building have been relocated.