The light smoke floating across the Esterley Tibbetts Highway in George Town Wednesday morning was not a great cause for concern, according to initial statements by Cayman Islands fire commanders.
Acting Fire Chief Rosworth McLaughlin said a “small fire” started at the landfill early Wednesday and was “under control” fairly quickly, according to initial reports posted on the www.caycompass.com website.
That turned out not to be the case, as the landfill fire grew throughout the day and firefighters were able to dig deeper into the large residential trash pile on the southern end of the landfill.
The deeper they went, the more flames were discovered and by then a shift in the wind sparked fires on other areas of the trash mound.
By Thursday, smoke clouds bringing foul odors to a large portion of Grand Cayman’s western and southern coasts were reported everywhere from West Bay to Savannah.
What may not have looked like a large blaze from the top of the 70-80 foot trash mound had actually started far beneath the surface, possibly by spontaneous combustion although fire crews were not immediately able to determine a cause.
The fire was eventually extinguished around noon on Saturday. A small crew remained on site Saturday to watch for any flare ups, according to Acting Fire Chief McLaughlin.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the operations of the Cayman Islands Fire Service and which is run by Premier Alden McLaughlin, was not critical of the emergency response decisions at the scene of the landfill.
It noted firefighters had worked more than 50 hours non-stop by Friday morning, hampered by a lack of functional equipment needed to get to the seat of the blaze – some 25 feet down from the top of the trash pile.
However, a government-led review of that response will be conducted, according to Ministry chief officer Eric Bush, who commended the firefighters who “put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect our country and its people.”
“It’s obvious we need to make some improvement to responding to dump fires and adequately supplying our officers with properly functioning safety equipment,” Mr. Bush said, noting that a recent review of the local fire service by United Kingdom chief fire and rescue advisor Peter Holland had pointed this out just a few weeks ago.
“We will learn from this and make the necessary improvements,” Mr. Bush said.
The fire at the landfill’s southern end was more difficult to battle since five pieces of heavy equipment normally used to fight fires or mitigate the occurrence of fires were out of order.
Health Minister Osbourne Bodden, who has oversight responsibility for the George Town landfill, said last week that two bulldozers, a trash compactor and two excavators normally available to the dump site were broken down. Mr. Bodden said Premier McLaughlin contacted him Wednesday to ask what it might cost to replace those vehicles. Mr. Bodden said it would be somewhere in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million.
Eventually, four excavators were brought to the site to help fire crews with their task, but questions were left surrounding the lack of proper equipment and why the equipment on site was broken down. Mr. Bodden said earlier this month that an engine from one of the excavators had been sent to Brazil for repairs.
Issues with poor vehicle maintenance and lack of proper replacement procedures have been well known for months, both in the Department of Environmental Health and the wider Cayman Islands government. In June, the government’s Internal Audit Unit reported that a “growing fleet” of rundown vehicles had caused a number of Cayman Islands government agencies to choose not to use the government department created to maintain and purchase new vehicles. Most of those increasingly dilapidated vehicles were used by the Department of Environmental Health, the Health Services Authority and the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.
The review conducted by Mr. Holland touched on some matters related to the fire service’s ability to respond effectively to situations like last week’s landfill fire.
“There is no question there is low morale amongst firefighters,” Mr. Holland said after spending several hours spending with local fire crews about problems in the service. One of the major issues identified was the lack of updated protective equipment for fire crews, he said, describing this as “a big factor as far as the firefighters are concerned.”
Meanwhile, the government spent more than $6 million on new fire trucks following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to replace what it had lost. The trucks make relatively few calls for service each year.
The government has budgeted to hire 26 new firefighters in the 2013/14 fiscal year. Mr. Holland also advised that options could be explored to beef up the service even further.
In the U.S., fire service volunteers are often used to supplement or even replace professional firefighters in smaller communities. In the U.K., Mr. Holland said, “retained duty” firefighters are used on an as-needed basis for the same functions.
The difference is that retained duty firefighters are professionally trained and paid, but they are called in [and paid] only when emergencies or staffing levels dictate. “They’re trained to exactly the same standard as the full-time firefighters,” Mr. Holland said.
On Wednesday, all available fire service personnel had to be brought in on standby to sustain a prolonged effort at the landfill site.
Firefighters and Department of Environmental Health workers only got called in to clean up the mess that already existed, according to Health Minister Bodden.
He said the fire “reinforces the decision” to form a multi-agency steering committee to develop a proper waste management system for the Cayman Islands. “These fires only serve to underscore the fact that it is of critical importance to the country that we find a sustainable solution to waste management,” he said.
The 16-person committee, consisting mainly of civil servants, held its first meeting on Jan. 22. It was created to provide government with technical advice about the landfill, create a budget and procurement strategy for the project and monitor the implementation as it goes along.
“We have learned many lessons through this experience and now it’s time to move on and look ahead,” Mr. Bodden said.