Mon | Apr 6, 2020

Editorial | Petrol station review urgent

Published:Thursday | February 27, 2020 | 12:16 AM

In the larger scheme of things, Mandeville escaped relatively unscathed from last week’s fire at the FESCO petrol station in the town’s commercial centre. Which, of course, is not to downplay the death of an individual, injuries to at least six others, the destruction of a dozen motor vehicles and significant damage to the premises. The situation could have been far more catastrophic.

Insofar as there is any further positive to be conjured from the incident, it is the opportunity it provides for a frank and transparent review of the safety of Jamaica’s petroleum industry, including the robustness of the analysis to determine where gas stations are sited. It is also a call for Parliament to get on, with greater urgency, its plodding review of industrial-safety regulations, which are primarily rooted in the Factories Act.

The Fire Brigade is still to come to a determination of the cause of the FESCO fire. So, this newspaper makes no judgement in this respect. However, anyone who has seen the video circulating on social media, which apparently captured events in the moments just before the explosion, would not be unreasonable in concluding that negligence played a part. At the very least, it is a clear lesson of how not to operate, or behave, at a petrol station, or not to breach safety rules.

As petrol gushed from a pump, someone, perhaps an attendant, chats nonchalantly on a mobile phone, seemingly blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned about, the potential danger. Then the explosion!

It is not known whether electromagnetic radiation from the cell phone ignited the petroleum fumes, leading to the fire. But there is warning against their use at pumps, as well as for drivers to turn off their engines while filling up at Jamaica’s approximately 300 service stations. So, too, the ‘no smoking’ signs.

Except for the latter, they are often neither followed nor enforced. They, on both counts, should be.

The FESCO station is at the intersection of three of Mandeville’s busiest roads. It shares a compound with, as well as being adjacent to, several other businesses. These businesses are close to others. If the fire had spread, a significant portion of the town’s commercial centre might have been destroyed.

Indeed, it again raises questions about whether the Jamaica Fire Brigade would have the capacity, including equipment and training, to adequately respond to a fire of that magnitude, or some other major catastrophe, natural or man-made. Either way, it is important to do all that is possible to prevent such disasters, and to mitigate their impact if, and when, they happen.

That is the context in which we suggest an islandwide audit of petrol stations, orchestrated by the energy ministry, which licenses and regulates the industry, and other oversight agencies, to ensure that those that already exist are operating by the rules, and that new ones are established in accordance with the regulations. First, the authorities must insist on a certified, and standardised, training programme for petrol station attendants, in which safety is a major component.

OPERATIONAL OVERSIGHT

The review should also include an analysis of the government’s own inspectorate and the keenness of their oversight of the operational integrity of petrol stations, including the calibration of equipment, which is the shared responsibility of the Bureau of Standards Jamaica and the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority. We wouldn’t be surprised if that oversight is largely pro forma.

The locations of some petrol stations, established before there were as many motor vehicles in Jamaica as today, and ahead of the deeper appreciation of environmental issues that impact people’s health and global warming, will most likely remain grandfathered. But the authorities, at the same time, should check that those established since the rules have been in place, and any built in the future, should comply with zoning as well as environmental regulations set out by the National Environment and Planning Agency, such as the minimum 12,000 square feet within their curtilage, the minimum 300 feet frontage on a station’s primary street, and that petrol stations must be at least 500 feet from public institutions, such as schools, hospitals, libraries or parks.

The Mandeville incident suggests, too, the need for a mitigation policy for business and homes in proximity to petrol stations, as well as an education campaign on how people ought to behave in the event of a fire.