Declare a Period of National Mourning and Launch an Immediate Inquiry into the Paynesville Fire Disaster!

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The Daily Observer expresses its deepest condolence to the families of those children who perished in the fire disaster in the Paynesville Red Light area in the early hours of Wednesday, September 18, 2019. The Daily Observer prays that the Good Lord grants their souls peaceful eternal rest.

This latest fire disaster has left the public wondering just when or how long will it take for the Government of Liberia to recognize the importance of having a functional and efficient National Fire Service. From all indications, the National Fire Service was left out of the Security Sector Reform process, although it operates under the Ministry of Justice and forms part of the joint security apparatus.

This newspaper recalls that in its February 22, 2018 editorial entitled, “Govt. Must End Official Neglect of Liberia National Fire Service”, it drew official attention to the fact that the performance of the Liberia National Fire Service (LNFS) was severely hamstrung by the lack of sufficient and adequately trained manpower, generally low salaries, poor incentives and, above all, the lack of up-to-date firefighting equipment, which constrained its already poor and inadequate fire response capacity.

Most fire outbreaks, according to official statistics, usually occur in and around Monrovia, the nation’s capital and largest population center. The major causes of these fire outbreaks, according to the National Fire Service, is due to burning candles left unattended, mosquito coils, electrical faults, etc.

This dire situation is not helped by the lack of pipe borne water in most parts of the capital. Years prior to the conflict, this newspaper recalls, fire hydrants were installed at various points around the city and this helped enhance the ability of the Fire Service to respond to fires.

That situation, however, no longer exists and the LNFS is being hard-pressed to deliver. Cognizant of the need to derive solutions, the LNFS in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) unveiled a five-year plan in 2015 detailing where the institution hopes to find itself within a five-year period. The Strategic Plan emphasized the need for training of fire fighting personnel, including the provision of modern firefighting equipment such as trucks, hoists, fireproof garments, etc.

Currently, the Fire Service boasts of only four (4) fire trucks to serve a population of 4.3 million people distributed across the 15 counties of Liberia, with a total manpower strength of about 600 persons. It also has a total of six substations around the country, with half of that number in Monrovia while the remaining three (3) substations are located outside Monrovia in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, Buchanan, in Grand Bassa County and Harper, in Maryland County.

Each of the substations located in Monrovia have a fire truck but none are in full working order while the remaining substations in the counties have no fire trucks at all. Although the LNFS’ strategic plan calls for the construction of 11 additional substations around the country and the provision of adequate firefighting equipment and trained manpower, it remains unclear whether anything will be done soon to remedy the problem in view of the upsurge in fire outbreaks around Monrovia and the LNFS’ feeble response to such outbreaks.

That said, this latest fire outbreak, which resulted in such huge loss of lives, has raised questions about the conditions in which those children were being housed. If the building was indeed a school, did it have dormitory facilities that were up to standard? Further, what kind of education was being offered these children?

Moreover, what was the involvement of the Ministry of Education in the establishment of the school? Was the school and its curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education? Additionally, was the construction approved by the Ministry of Public Works and did the school meet National Fire Service safety standards? Further, how come the imam and his wife were taken out first and the children left to their fate?

These are all questions that need answers as we mourn the loss of precious lives. In the view of the Daily Observer, the school authorities should be held to account for housing students in a building that lacked appropriate and adequate entry and exit points, to facilitate easy evacuation in case of critical incidents such as the fire which consumed so many lives.

Sources told this newspaper that the building was kept locked at night because of threats posed by armed robbers. If that was the case, then why the school did not hire security guards to provide adequate security to the students being housed, and why were the students not familiarized with the safety procedures for the building?

In view of this grave situation, the Daily Observer calls on the Government of Liberia to launch a full-scale inquiry into the disaster, with a view to uncovering the true cause of the fire, determining responsibility and holding accountable those who, by their negligence, unwittingly contributed to the disaster.

The Daily Observer commends President Weah for responding quickly by personally visiting the scene of the disaster, to console family members of the deceased. The Daily Observer however suggests that he goes a step further by declaring a period of national mourning in honor of those innocent children whose lives were untimely taken away due to the negligence of others and follow through with a full-scale inquiry.

It must be emphasized that no religious sentiments should be brought to bear in this case. This fire disaster is by no means the will of Allah. It is the product of gross negligence and should be treated as such. Those found responsible should be made to face the full weight of the law, to serve as deterrence against future incidents of such nature.

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