Since the fire of 3 September 2010, the Chief Fire Officer has been the target of much criticism. My only criticism was of his excuse that Barbados only has a draft building code. I found this excuse exacerbating because it appeared to be used to justify inaction on the part of the Barbados Fire Service that could have averted the tragic loss of life.
Does Barbados Have a Building Code?
Since the criminal act of 3 September 2010, building designers, government regulators, and politicians have identified the absence of a national building code as the principal reason for the deaths. The Nation Newspaper editorial of 7th September 2010 also identified the principal reason for the deaths as “the sad lack of a national building code.”
For the record, the Barbados National Building Code (BNBC) was published in Draft form in 1992, and given to potential users for comment. The cover states “DRAFT August 1992” in the top right corner.
After comments had been received, it was published as a final document in 1993. For the past 17 years, the Barbados National Standards Institution (BNSI) has been selling the current edition of the Code for $100, for use by building designers, contractors, and Government regulators, including the Barbados Fire Service.
For the past 17 years, successive Government administrations have not made the enforcement of Barbados’ documented national building standards a priority. However, that does not absolve building designers, contractors, and regulators from their primary obligation to ensure that buildings under their authority are safe. Barbados’ standards of structural and fire safety are defined in the current edition of the Barbados National Building Code.
Building standards are dynamic documents, and with use, are continuously being updated. Sometimes errata are issued advising users of the updates. When errata are inconvenient, due to the volume of changes required, then new editions of the standards are issued. However, until a new edition is published, users should always use the current edition. The BNSI is currently working on a new edition of the BNBC.
What Authority Does the Fire Chief Have?
The most voluminous section of the Code is Part 3 – the Fire Safety section. It provides sufficient information to designers of new buildings in Barbados to significantly reduce the occupant’s risk of harm from fire. It also provides sufficient information and authority to the Barbados Fire Service, to check the fire safety of existing buildings in Barbados, in order to significantly reduce the occupant’s risk of harm from fire.
The BNBC does not yet have the force of law that would give the Barbados Fire Service the authority to enforce the Fire Safety part of the Code. Neither does the Fire Service act (CAP 163) give the Chief Fire Officer the authority to enter a private property to advise on, or enforce fire safety requirements. Therefore, what can the Chief Fire Officer do?
Whenever I have asked the Barbados Fire Service to inspect large buildings and advise on their fire safety, they have responded. They have always sent knowledgeable persons who have provided useful advice. Such inspections have rarely exceeded 20 minutes.
If a fire officer could be assigned to visit commercial buildings in Barbados, and advise on their fire safety, I do not think that any business owner would refuse to grant access. Therefore, the enactment of new laws to provide the threat of penalties for enforcing access is unnecessary.
Assuming that one fire officer can inspect eight properties each day in Bridgetown (at a rate of one per hour), then what is exacerbating to me, is that over 35,000 properties could have been inspected in the past 17 years – had the Chief Fire Officer been aware that our building standards were no longer in draft form, but was a final document that was being sold by the Government of Barbados for their use.
Blaming the Fire Chief
Do I blame the Chief Fire Officer for this lack of knowledge? Of course not! Why not? Because if building designers, contractors, politicians, government regulators, and press reporters in Barbados have been insisting, for the past 17 years, that the Barbados National Building Code was only a draft document and not to be followed, and I alone am claiming that it is a final document, sold by the BNSI to be used, then history has shown that people tend to believe the majority opinion. History has also shown that at critical junctures, where the consequences of being wrong were fatal, then the majority opinion tended to be on the opposite side of the truth.
Grenville Phillips II
Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers