By Esther Durand, BVI News Staff
More than two dozen fire officers stationed at the hurricane-ravaged Virgin Islands Fire & Rescue headquarters in Road Town have fallen ill to the dilapidated conditions they have been forced to work under for the last 14 months.
“We have 32 officers [and] every officer has been affected,” Chief Fire Officer Zebalon McLean told BVI News.
The fire chief said the overwhelming condition of the building has impacted his team in varying ways and several officers have had to take time off work as a result.
He said the general discomfort of the facility is causing the officers — especially those who work the graveyard shift — to lose sleep which, in turn, is affecting their performance in the field.
“When you are not sleeping comfortably it puts an even higher level of fatigue on you so you cannot get up and move as quickly as you can. So, a few of the officers may have lost half a step,” the fire chief explained.
“When it comes to emergency services, you have to remember the reason why we have to be in a position to respond 24 hours [a day]. It’s because you cannot wait for persons (fire officers) to come from home and come to the station and come and save lives. If that was the case, by the time you would have done that, the person would have died,” he reasoned.
When BVI News visited the station this week, the facility had just experienced a short burst of rainfall. Water was, therefore, seen pooling on the floors of the hallway and entryway of the building.
The absence of a roof on the facility had also caused water to seep through the cracks of the walls and into the building’s electrical circuits. Added to this hazard, an officer told our news centre that, despite constant cleaning, the facility is always wet and mouldy.
A further tour of the building led BVI News to a dark mosquito-infested room presumed to be the resting quarters of the officers, who are tasked with fighting fires and conducting rescue operations across Tortola. The air quality of the room was thick, mouldy, and dusty — conditions these officers have had to endure all hours of the day for the last 427 days, at least.
On the upstairs of the building — which was formerly used as the administration block — small trenches were chiselled on the concrete floor of every room. These ad hoc trenches were used to channel rainwater out of the building. One fire officer explained that the trenches were dug to reduce the amount of water that would pour on to the occupied downstairs area whenever it rained.
Tarpaulins and plyboard were also used to create a makeshift roof over the staircase of the building.
As BVI News moved from room to room at the facility, the onslaught of the last year’s disasters was still visibly evident.
Fire Chief McLean said his department submitted proposals to the Ministry of Finance roughly two weeks ago so that repairs can begin on the hurricane-ravaged building. He said he and his team remain hopeful that their condition will improve in the not-too-distant future.
The fire chief, however, pointed out that his officers’ morale is being affected because they feel unappreciated.
“They have to remind themselves of how important they are to the territory because it seems that the territory is not appreciative of how important they are … Until I have a brand new building, enough fire trucks, and have motivated officers, I will never be satisfied,” McLean told BVI News.
“I have officers who operate out of a building that looks like a pig sty; breathing contaminated air because every time it drizzles water gets into the building,” he further said.
An officer who has been part of the team for the last 28 years, along with his junior colleague who has served more than 10 years in the department, expressed their frustrations about their working/living conditions.
“How can we save people when we need saving ourselves?” asked the junior officer, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of being victimized.
“I considered taking time off without pay till the place gets better but I have my family to look after,” he said.
“A year plus after the hurricane, we shouldn’t be in this still. We could understand a couple months but a whole year? It’s too much. We cannot do anything, we cannot even cook a meal … we have no kitchen now. The kitchen used to be upstairs but it got destroyed, now we have to be buying food. This is the worse I’ve been through,” his senior colleague added.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Communication & Works, Anthony McMaster, could not be immediately reached for comment up to publication time.
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