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OPINION: The Power of Civilian Oversight

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 October 2021, 6:34 by Denis Chabrol

by Clement Rohee

When I assumed portfolio responsibility for the Ministry of Home Affairs I was introduced to Doreen De Cairies who, at the time, was chairwoman of the Fire Advisory Board.

My perusal of the minutes of meetings of the Board chaired by Doreen showed how intensely persistent she was in addressing the shortcomings of the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) in pursuit of the Fire Prevention Act Ch. 22:01.

Doreen was deeply concerned about the decrepit state of the GFS’ firefighting assets and the non-functioning of fire hydrants in the city of Georgetown. On top of that, she wanted an increase in risk allowance for firefighters. I discerned Doreen’s frustration because she was not successful in drilling down the specific government agency or department responsible for repairing and making functional the city hydrants as effective fire fighting tools.
I inherited Doreen’s frustration, but soon realized that it was grounded in certain realities. While an inter-agency approach was necessary to find a solution to the problem, the Georgetown City Council was broke and the new PPP/C government had no intention of handing over millions to be squandered on wasteful projects nor to be spent on useless foreign junkets.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Works was saddled with a number of community projects which the PPP/C government had placed at the top of that ministry’s agenda.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs was not to be distracted. It stuck to its mandate inter alia ; ‘To ensure the maintenance of public order and safety through out Guyana…’ at a time when the crime situation was spiraling out of control compounded by the brutal murders executed by the marauding Rondell Rawlings aka ‘the Fineman gang.’

In the circumstances, fire hydrants were certainly not at the top of government’s agenda especially at a time when law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community were pressing for additional resources to bring an end to the escalating criminal jamboree in the country.

These are not excuses. They were facts grounded in the reality of the times. Moreover, lest the facts be misconstrued, I must emphasize that whenever the question of fire hydrants came up for discussion at cabinet meetings, the Home Affairs ministry did contribute to the search for a comprehensive solution to the problem. Truth be told, the problem was always one of money, and where it was to come from at a time when money was badly needed for the social and security sectors.

But back to Doreen. After acceding to my request to stay on awhile longer as Chair of the Fire Prevention Board even though the Board’s life had come to an end, after a few months, Doreen eventually tendered her resignation.
We were sad to see her go.

The Fire Prevention Act Ch. 22:01 states: ‘An act that provides for the inspection of premises in Guyana for the purpose of eliminating fire hazards and for purposes connected herewith.’
Fire Advisory Board
3 (1) There shall be instituted a Board to be called the Fire Advisory Board herein after referred to as the Board vested with powers, duties and functions in this act mentioned.
(2) The Board shall consist of nine members who shall be appointed by the Minister
4. It shall be the duty of the Board: (a) to advise the minister on all questions pertaining to the prevention of fires and matters incidental thereto; (b) To perform the duties and exercise the functions mentioned in this Act.

People tend to ask, ‘But what did you do while you were there?’
One of my first instructions to the Board was to identify all derelict buildings in the city that are potential fire hazards, find the owners and advise them about the need to demolish the buildings. A number of city buildings was identified for demolition but legal entanglements, absentee landlords as well as the City Council’s bureaucratism restricted the GFS from taking action.

I did my best to root out corruption; established a Welfare Board; built over 6 new fire stations around the country ; established the Auxiliary Branch of the GFS; modernized the Fire Station at Ogle International airport equipping it with modern firefighting assets; rolled out portable firefighting equipment best suited for interior locations; equipped the GFS with new fire tenders, facilitated the enrollment of GFS recruits at the Guysuco Training Center at Port Mourant to be trained in basic engineering and allied skills to enhance the preventative maintenance of vehicles belonging to the GFS; increased professional training for local firefighters by recruiting British experts on a short-term basis from the London – based Angloco; secured cabinet’s approval for a name change from Guyana Fire Service to Guyana Fire and Ambulance Service; drew up a 5- year Strategic and Implementation Plan for the GFS and established a civilian-staffed Strategic Management Department to oversee implementation of the GFS strategic plan.

What transpired as it relates to the fortunes of the GFS during the APNU+AFC’s tenure in office is for them to say. What we do know is that the Board was not reconstituted until 2018, three years after the coalition had assumed office.

Following the assumption to office by the the PPP/C the Board was reconstituted in April 2021. Addressing the first meeting of new Board members, the Minister of Home Affairs is reported to have drawn three issues to their attention, these included; failure of the GFS to make effective use of assets; proper strategic management of assets and service deficit in training and engagement in firefighting.

Soon after the Board was installed, a fire broke out at Montrose on the East Coast. Montrose borders the neighboring village of Mon Repos where a pump station with a huge reservoir of water is readily available.

After the fire tender’s water supply was exhausted, rather than proceeding to the nearby Mon Repos pump station to refill and return to help extinguish the fire at Montrose, the tender sped off to Georgetown to refill its water tanks only to reappear some two hours later. By that time, the cries at the scene of the fire was reminiscent of those similar to ; “All gone Lake!” Just like it was when the Brickdam Police Station was reduced to a pile of ashes.

Today, criticisms are rife as regards the GFS’ ineffective use of its assets compounded by an absence of proper strategic management of its human resources as well as a serious deficit in training and engagement in firefighting.

But that aside, it is the Board that remains the focus of attention. The composition of the Board has remained moribund for decades and the question is whether the time has not come for significant changes in its composition.
My view has always been that the composition of the Fire Prevention Board should be revisited. The composition include representatives of ; the Guyana National Bureau of Standards, the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mayor and City Council, the Central Housing and Planning Authority, the AG’s Chamber, the Ex-firefighters Association and the Guyana Manufactures and Services Association.

In the first place, attendance at meetings tend to be below expectation. Instead of the nominees listed attending, lower ranking personnel came unprepared to meetings totally unaware of the Fire Prevention Act and knowing little or nothing about their respective roles on the Board. With a weak Chairman, the GFS representative would seek to take control of the meetings, diverting it from its mandate, eventually making the Board a toothless poodle tethered to the whims and fancies of the GFS.

In such a situation, ministerial intervention became necessary to read the riot act to the GFS, and to put the Board back on track with a view to asserting its autonomy. Such measures were reinforced by appeals to my cabinet colleagues to ensure that fit and proper representatives were sent to serve on the Board. Strong and decisive civilian leadership at the level of the Board is critical to successful implementation of the Fire Prevention Act

President Cheddi Jagan had at one time made it mandatory that civilian composed oversight bodies be put in place at government agencies and departments. And though there were some manifestations of passive resistance, President Jagan’s policy initiative proved an excellent mechanism that facilitated effective and efficient execution of Cabinet and ministerial mandates .

Civilians who function as oversight bodies with strong leadership and autonomy at organizations to which they have been appointed, help brainstorm ideas, improve transparency as regards policies and procedures; They also help generate policy proposals and initiatives. Oversight bodies help identify strengths and weaknesses.
Thus, experience has shown that civilian oversight can play an important role once given strong leadership, effective ministerial support and autonomy.