Changing social attitudes

During the past two years, the theme of my columns has been based on natural and technological hazards, domestic preparedness issues, and security managerial concerns, the need for comprehensive planning and a multi-managerial approach to multi-hazard occurrences. I have been advocating planning, training, quality of response, effectiveness of thorough recovery processes, continuity of government, disaster welfare considerations for the victim, improvement of warning and alert for the general populace, and the need for the continuous sharing of information and ideas among professionals and the community at large. In most cases, as my Editor will attest, I have continued to maintain that preparedness, planning, and realistic training scenarios are effective tools to protecting the continuity of a society and a system.

As the reader, I often wonder if my contribution serves as any benefit to you as you continue about your daily lives. My recommendations and suggestions on preparedness and safety, though based on more than 25+ years’ experience, does not necessarily guarantee that you, while recognizing my knowledge of the subject, will be influenced to change your attitude towards personal safety and health. Burglar bars are still being installed in homes without escape devices attached for emergency exit. Businesses are still operating in buildings without adequate emergency exits. Mass crowd events are still being held in buildings where some of the emergency exits are either locked or are no longer working.

Barbados like any other country, regardless of its economic development, receives comments and criticisms from its population, whether invited or not, on how it’s social, political, protective, health and safety systems are serving the population. In some cases the feedback received is not always complimentary, which results in irate comments being made about those who have made the “not so positive” comments.

However, it is those “not so positive” comments that allow a society to examine its own development and whether or not those that have either been elected, appointed, or hired are performing as would be expected based on their presented qualifications and professed abilities.

Services were recently held to commemorate the lives of the six victims of the Campus Trendz Fire. Both professional and armchair analysts have all commented on that incident; but they all shared one common opinion, and that is if there had been another exit/entrance in the building, there is a very high probability that no lives would have been lost that day, even if injuries were incurred. Within weeks after the Campus Trendz Fire, another multi-tenanted single entrance commercial building with no emergency exits, or back doors completed construction and opened in Worthing.

Once more we complain but accept the mediocrity of life. Comments that followed that tragic incident included changes in safety regulations that govern exits/entrances for commercial buildings; changes in, or the full implementation of the much discussed Barbados Building code that regulates commercial building construction including apartment and hotel complexes; access to and the immediate availability of building plans to first responders during emergencies that provides accurate and current information on the interiors of buildings; accurate information on the contents of commercial warehouses and mercantile businesses during fire emergencies.

One of the constant complaints of emergency service personnel is the lack of current immediate information on the contents and layout of commercial buildings on fire or under threat. Within the law enforcement community, this same request can be of immense value when approaching an unknown building while responding to a perceived threat. Responders entering a building, whose internal layout of multiple corridors, offices and store rooms, further increases the safety and health risk levels to responding personnel. This risk is further exacerbated when one enters a darkened facility; it is even more risky if the portable lighting systems are not labeled as “Intrinsically Safe”.

Intrinsic safety is a protection technique for safe operation of electronic equipment in explosive atmospheres and under irregular operating conditions. The concept was developed for safe operation of process control instrumentation in hazardous areas, particularly North Sea gas platforms. The theory behind intrinsic safety is to ensure that the available electrical and thermal energy in the system is always low enough that ignition of the hazardous atmosphere cannot occur. This is achieved by ensuring that only low voltages and currents enter the hazardous area, and that all electrical supply and signal wires are protected by safety barriers.

This same information is of equal importance to developing evacuation plans for occupants. One of the criticisms often received when testing evacuation plans, is the fact that most exercises are conducted during day lights hours, but an exercise of this type does not benefit night shift employees who rely on the lighting systems for work as well as locating exits in emergencies. Fires have been known to destroy most battery powered emergency lighting systems in buildings, further increasing the risk of being trapped in the artificial maze of corridors, offices and stairwells of multi-story buildings.

It is now two years since I joined the Barbados TODAY Team, and in those two years it has been difficult to gauge the increased levels of preparedness, planning, and readiness that would suggest that definitive progress has been made in the area of emergency management that tangibly represents a recognition of the safety and health concerns of the population. We are still awaiting the proclamation of the Safety and Health at Work Act 2005.

Engineers are still lamenting the need for comprehensive changes in the disaster mitigation plan for Barbados. One well known engineer recently commented against the background of hurricanes and earthquakes that the homes of disaster responders are in need of upgrading. The engineer suggested that this vulnerability of responder’s homes would ultimately affect their ability to be effective during an emergency due to the fact that their attention to the job might be diverted if their homes and families were at risk while they were in the field.

What does it take to influence social attitudinal change? Sociological scientists would suggest that change in social attitudes is not an easy task to either observe or influence due to the many aspects of human behavior. It has been suggested that catastrophic events with significant loss of life can be a major factor in some societies. It has been argued by American researchers that Hurricane Katrina and September 11th was the precipitating factor that ushered in new and drastic administrative procedures in American emergency response. European air traffic procedures were immediately rewritten after the Iceland Volcanic eruption that shut down air traffic across Europe and parts of Asia.

Will a catastrophic event in this region become the precipitating factor that ushers change? Can change occur without loss of life and property, or is human behavior determined by tangible occurrences that could have been avoided? I invite you to share your answers with me through this publication.

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