Officials agreed to consider implementing an emergency siren alert system for the fuel depot after meeting with anxious South Sound residents in the wake of a fire at the Jackson Point terminal.
Seeking, in some cases demanding solutions, around 60 residents packed into the South Sound Community Centre Thursday to share their frank opinions with fire and police chiefs and public safety officials.
Nearly all condemned the level of communication on the night and asked for a swifter emergency alert system. Some wanted to know who would pay if their homes burned. Others demanded an open investigation into the cause of the fire and called for the results to be made public and for criminal prosecutions if Sol Petroleum was found to have breached safety standards.
The fire, inside a diesel tank at the depot on Sunday, July 23, took more than eight hours to extinguish and caused the evacuation of homes and businesses within a mile radius of the facility.
Wesley Howell, chief officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said officials would “fall on our sword” and accept responsibility for poor communications on the night.
He said Hazard Management staff were looking at the possibility of interrupting radio and television broadcasts with emergency alerts.
He said a trial of sending text messages to all Flow and Digicel subscribers in an emergency situation had proved ineffective, with some users not receiving the messages until days later.
Officials are investigating setting up a “Wireless Emergency Alert” system, used in the U.S. to automatically send missing persons alerts to cellphone users. Mr. Howell said it is more sophisticated and more reliable than text messaging, but would require some work to set up.
Several residents vented their frustrations about the level of communications on the night – both the speed of informing residents that there was a fire and evacuation and the level of updates through the night about if or when they could return home.
Multiple residents suggested a siren system that would alert them immediately to any emergency at the fuel terminal.
“Get a tornado siren. Get that up tomorrow. You have to have something that will wake you in the middle of the night,” one woman told officials.
Mr. Howell acknowledged the evacuation had been difficult to handle and said the ministry would look at new procedures, potentially including sirens. “There are 600 homes within that area so the sheer math of officers going door to door – we recognize that is not efficient and we are looking at other methods,” he said.
Fire chief David Hails said the call to evacuate the area within a mile radius was made by the senior fire officer on scene at the outset. He said the officer had “erred on the side of caution” using his judgment.
Officials agreed to investigate, on a more scientific basis, what area should be evacuated in emergency situations at the depot.
Keith Sahm, general manager of Sunset House, said there should also be established protocols on what to do and where to go for information in that situation.
He said he and others had struggled to get reliable information amid a swirl of rumors on Facebook, including a photo of a fuel tank engulfed in flames, which turned out to be from another country.
Mr. Sahm, a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer, said there should have been regular, accessible updates on the night.
“Facts are what keep people calm. When everybody goes to pandemonium, it is because there is an absence of facts and people are spreading rumors,” he said.
Lawyer Steve McField was among those to call for the fuel station to be moved. Citing a 1979 report, he said experts had been recommending for decades that it be placed in a more remote part of the island.
“What we are doing is allowing this hazard to grow and grow, like we did with the dump,” he said. “That is a hazard to our health; this is a hazard to our lives. I am going to be an advocate for moving this out of the neighborhood.”
Fire chiefs remained reticent about discussing the cause of the fire, despite claims from residents, including from one neighbor of the facility who said he had seen workmen welding on the tank hours before the fire.
Under pressure from residents, officials from regulator OfReg said they would make their report public.
Mr. Hails said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the fire. He said the fire services investigation could take weeks, even months, and would involve draining the tank of fuel and inspecting it from the inside. He said, when complete, it would be passed to the police, who would decide if any criminal investigation needed to take place.
Thursday’s meeting was organized by George Town MLA Barbara Connolly.