During the eight-hour battle to extinguish a fire inside a diesel tank at Jackson Point last Sunday, firefighters used every tool at their disposal – high-tech thermal imaging, cooling jets and foam – in a heroic effort that averted a potential catastrophe.
Public safety officials also made coordinated efforts to protect human life – evacuating the area, setting up roadblocks and preventing vessels at sea from sailing too close to the danger zone.
We are grateful for their work and thankful the fire was contained.
But there was one key area in which officials did not make full use of the tools available or adequately coordinate their efforts during Sunday’s potentially explosive incident: Communication.
Even though hundreds of residents and tourists were evacuated, and many more could have been affected, updates about the blaze were few and far between.
Some people told the Compass they weren’t made aware of the fire until hours after firefighters arrived on the scene. Others said they weren’t advised about emergency shelter, or told when it was safe for them to return to their homes. Briefings to local media (including the Compass) were sparse.
Hazard Management’s Simon Boxall told us on Tuesday that he did try to spread the word – to local media and directly to affected people – but faced many challenges, including a lack of information to share and the timing of the incident – Sunday evening and overnight, smack in the “dead zone” of the local news cycle.
Mr. Boxall agrees that emergency communications should be improved moving forward, saying Sunday’s incident provided “some ongoing lessons about how we can do better.”
Mr. Boxall told us that a test of an emergency text message alert system (during March’s tsunami response exercise) revealed that current equipment cannot handle the volume needed to truly assist in an emergency. It will take an investment of resources to make sure all mobile phone users receive timely messages by text.
He also explained that the national emergency operation center’s emergency phone number comes online only if the National Emergency Operations Centre is activated, which it wasn’t during Sunday’s fire. (If a two-mile-wide evacuation notice doesn’t constitute a “national emergency,” what does?)
We acknowledge officials’ efforts under duress and with apparently limited options. But the first lesson of Communications 101 (or Intro to Ham Radio Operation) is that sending a message is only one half of the equation – the other half is receiving the message.
The bottom line is that much of government’s intended audience (i.e., the people who were evacuated because of the fire) felt like they were in an information vacuum.
When the next emergency occurs, officials should use every tool at their disposal, via every medium (text, TV, radio, internet, local media – including Compass reporters – etc.) to ensure vital information is being sent and received.
Better still, why not create a single, special 3-digit hotline number that people can call to get timely and accurate information from government when they’re not sure exactly where to turn?
Setting all of the above aside, the real issue with Sunday’s fire at the fuel terminal isn’t government’s immediate communications response. It’s the presence of the fuel terminals in the midst of a densely populated residential area.
The solution is straightforward – move the fuel terminal – but not simple.
Readers will recall that Cayman had at least two opportunities to address this issue – first with the proposed East End Seaport in 2010, and again in 2014 when the dangers were brought up by then-Minister Kurt Tibbetts in a proposed deal with Navasota Clean Energy LLC.
In both cases, those plans went nowhere, stymied by competing public, private and political interests.
If that reminds anyone of discussions over the George Town Landfill, it’s no coincidence. The fuel terminal, like the landfill, is a potentially hazardous, but necessary, facility proximate to homes and businesses. Who wants that in their back (or front) yard?