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I am really worried about the fire vulnerability of the new student apartment block next to the Trinity School of Medicine.
I have watched it being built and I am of the opinion that because of the size of the building, and the way it is built, it has a number of inherent dangers attached to it. Few people understand what happens to concrete during a major fire, when it gets to a certain temperature.
Concrete is fully oxidized, it will never actually burn, but its mechanical strength is lost above a few hundred degrees F, usually shortly after all the water is baked out of it.
Failure of concrete structures due to heating is caused by the differences in “coefficient of thermal expansion” of concrete and its steel reinforcing bars [rebar]. The rebar shatters the concrete by expanding in the shrinking concrete, rips itself loose from intimate contact, and then the whole building or structure collapses.
Saint Vincent is also in an area of earthquake prevalence, such huge concrete and block infill structures of this shape and magnitude are subject to being able to simply shake apart. If it was built as a square it would be much stronger than being built as an oblong. This building has no purpose built earthquake tolerance engineered into the structure whatsoever.
The roof is not built to new hurricane standards where the roof edges and ends are below a drainage parapet. Old fashioned roofing with little thought for hurricanes or big winds [there are no SVG regulations demanding such a hurricane proof roof but responsible owners still install them]. According to a research document from the British Building Research Establishment [BRS] of Watford England and presented to SVG for adoption, for tropical storm purposes no pitched roof on a housing building should have a pitch below 30⁰ to 40⁰ this roof appears to be less.
The same report says a building should not be built on a hill facing into the prevailing wind. This building is high on a hillside directly facing incoming hurricanes, tropical storms, and prevailing winds with no protection whatsoever. The existing medical school buildings were built to the correct formula as laid out in the British document. They are built on the opposite side of a hill blocking the prevailing wind and the buildings are pointing sideways on to the wind and not facing it end on.
The building roof has an unusually short overhang with no guttering to direct the water to downpipes and drainage points. Water from such a large roof will destroy the footings and foundations of the building and black mold will grow on the outside walls of building, later the spore spreading to the inside of the building. Black mold is a known contributor to asthma, black mold can be the source of many ailments and symptoms and can be the source of what is sometimes referred to as “sick building” syndrome.
According to Jay Portnoy, MD, common black mold sickness and symptoms include respiratory illness, including asthma, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and rashes. These symptoms are caused by the chemicals that are being released by the black mold. Asthma in SVG is highly prevalent mainly caused by the black mold growing in homes and schools, the main culprit being government buildings many of which are covered in it because concrete primer was not applied before painting. I must say this building did have a coat of concrete primer but a building without rain gutter drainage is still doomed to have mold grow on it and so is the floor where the roof water lands.
The roof and the loft is built in one big expanse with no fire wall partitions within the loft. Once there is fire and one of the loft windows is broken through heat this may cause the effect of the loft becoming the buildings fourth blast furnace rapidly spreading fire to all the upper apartments. The most potentially dangerous apartments in the building will be those on the top floor. Smoke and heat rises so there is more potential to be asphyxiated and roasted on the upper floor.
I am told by one of the builders on site that each apartment will have a cooking gas bottle in the kitchen [this is unconfirmed information] which is dangerous and not in keeping with a new building, adding further to the possibility of fire and explosion. Most students do not have the first idea of how to connect a cooking gas bottle. One careless student could cause the death of hundreds of fellow students. In such a building all cooking appliances should be powered by electricity, which as we all know will bankrupt the students with VINLECS tariffs.
Remember many students are away from their families for the first time, and many are irresponsible in their alcohol habits and general behavior. It’s like giving a child a box of matches to play with in its bedroom, and then going out for the day.
The structure is built on three floors and each floor has a great central corridor running the length of the building. The building and corridors face into the prevailing wind at one end with a direct exit at the other end of the building, which make the accommodation structure like three huge blast furnaces should there be a fire [four with the loft].
There should be emergency lighting in all public areas to come into action if there is a cut in power supply or a fire emergency. Arrowed floor lights pointing the way in a smoky situation would be a big help also.
A building of this size should have its own standby emergency generator.
So far I notice there are no automatic fire doors at intervals in the corridors and there are absolutely no external fire escapes on the outer side walls, not even potentially lifesaving room balconies on the sides of the building. There is no sprinkler system installed in the corridors or elsewhere.
No 2 ½“ fire hydrants next to the building or anywhere locally within reach of the building. Also being on a hill in the Ratho Mill area there is often next to no water pressure. Which would mean no availability of sufficient water supply under pressure will be present for the operation of a 2 ½“ fire hose. Certainly the Kingstown fire engine with its often empty water tanks and leaking hoses would be most inadequate. The fire service do not have sufficient lengths of hose to fight a fire in this building. Any fire in the building would simply roar out of control.
Because of the massive size of the building every Vincentian is aware that our incompetent under equipped and virtually useless fire brigade will never be able to deal with a fire in a building of this size. They have never been able to put out a simple house fire let alone something on this scale.
Our fire service and their equipment are totally inadequate to attend and deal with a fire in a building of this size. They are also slow in responding to fires outside Kingstown often having road accidents during the journey so do not expect them until after the fire.
This structure may well be a potential death trap for medical students and this should be brought to the attention of students and in particular their parents as soon as possible.
Student accommodation – fire safety tips
1/ Keep the cooker clean and in good working order. Most fires in student properties are linked to cooking.
2/ Tins and foil cause fires in microwaves – so leave them out.
3/ Don’t cook if you’ve been drinking alcohol. If you’ve been out on the town – get a take-away instead of cooking when you get home.
4/ Take extra care when frying with oil as this is an extremely common cause of fire. If one does occur NEVER put water on it as it will turn into a fireball.
5/ Practice an escape route with your housemates, so that you know how to get out of the property if there’s a fire.
6/ Take extra care with cigarettes and smoking materials. If you smoke, make sure you’ve extinguished your cigarette properly before you go to sleep. And never smoke in bed. [I now understand smoking is banned by the school in student accommodation but that does not mean it will not happen]
7/ Smoke alarms are potential life savers. Insist your landlord fits smoke alarms on each level of the buildings corridors and in the individual apartments linked to a central alarm. [frequent testing should take place]
8/ Fire extinguishers are potential life savers. Insist your landlord installs fire extinguishers at intervals in corridors, landings and all apartment kitchens. [make sure they are certified annually and have the test record written on the space on the appliance]
9/ Don’t overload plug sockets. And switch off electrical appliances, like mobile chargers and hair straighteners, when not in use.
10/ Don’t plug 110v equipment into 240v power supply without using a step-down transformer, doing so may result in a fire. Some equipment is marked 110/240v which means it is dual voltage and safe to use without a transformer.
11/ Keep candles away from flammable surfaces or textiles such as curtains, TV sets or bath tubs and never leave them unattended. Always remember to extinguish them properly before going to sleep.[in fact it would be better to ban candles if emergency power is installed]
I am calling on the appropriate authorities to demand an external fire escape system to be installed and a sprinkler system be installed along with automatic fire doors in the corridors of this building. It is also important to compartmentalize the loft into many fire walled areas, which will entail taking sections of the roof cladding off again to carry out such work properly and efficiently. The roof and ceilings of the upper apartments are lumber constructed so vulnerable to rapid spread of fire; that is why compartmentalization is so important.
This is not a house or warehouse, this is a commercial apartment block for students and the engineering, structure and safety facilities should reflect that fact.
This building is privately owned and purpose built for housing Trinity medical students, therefore the school must also insist on proper standards be followed for the protection of their students. I am sure if anything bad happens in the future, the school will be sued out of existence in the US, where the students are contracted to pay their rent.
SVG’s building inspectorate like the planners and fire brigade are very ignorant when it comes to fire containment. Life is cheap in SVG so no one cares a damn about these kinds of situations, Americans love suing people and organizations, so watch out.
There is a potential for the loss of many lives within this building as it currently stands and urgent and immediate attention must be given to this matter by all concerned.
With this letter the Owner/s, Trinity Medical School, the SVG Planning Department and Building Standards Department have been warned, so to fail to act now may be deemed a criminal act within any future litigation.
Insurance companies please take a look at the building and its safety attributes or lack thereof, and draw your conclusions, would you comprehensively insure this building for all risks as student accommodation?
Students before you move into this accommodation be sure to acquire a certified copy of the building permit and safety requirements for the building and also a copy of the insurance policy from the owner or the school, which should be comprehensive and all risks. Ask written questions about the safety of the building and demand written answers, verbal answers are next to useless. Send those to your parents to keep safely.
Remember obey your sixth sense, if you don’t feel safe then you most probably are not safe; if you feel unsure don’t take the risk. Do not be bullied by the school to move into the building until you are satisfied with all the safety aspects and requirements thereof.
Students please post this on ‘FaceBook’ and the ‘Students Website’. Be sure to pass it to your family and fellow students. Demand the Dean of Students takes some kind of action and you record what that action is.
Remember to do everything in writing it is important to create written evidence.
Some of the problems with this building are also relevant to the new student accommodation building at Canash. But the Canash problems are not quite the same as this Ratho Mill building. I will be writing about Canash shortly.