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Op-Ed: Moving Forward, Part 9

April 20, 2002 is a point in time I will not forget — it was the day the territory’s first shopping mall, the Laufou Shopping Center in Nuuli, went up in flames. I was renting one of the offices in the shopping center. The financial consequences suffered by all affected were devastating, and the struggle to reestablish businesses and provide for families proved challenging.

The fire appeared confined to one side of the building so there was hope my office would be spared, with fire fighters either there or on their way. Well, the rest as they say is (fiery) history, right before our eyes.

I don’t remember the weather conditions that morning of ten years ago, if the wind was blowing; if so, if that might have helped cause the fire to spread to the rest of the shopping center.  But I know for sure on June 15, 2012 at 4:45 A.M. to after 6 A.M., the trade winds weren’t blowing in the vicinity of the Trade Winds Hotel in Ottoville. 

Otherwise, the fire that devoured an apartment building behind the hotel that morning would have spread to the surrounding homes only a few feet away. I am a tenant in the apartment building that was spared by the fate of weather and quick thinking by our landlord and bystanders to remove the wooden fence (separating the two apartment buildings) and the gas tanks from behind our apartment building.

It was de-je-vu in the making — but thank God my family of eight including five grandchildren was spared the hardships my neighbors and their children now find themselves having to endure for some time. 

The sight of mothers holding their young ones close to them from a safe distance under trees (with eyes affixed to the burning building), while their husbands with phones to the ears (calling the police and fire department checking their whereabouts) saving what they could from their apartments was painful.

What should have been a five minute (or less) fire truck emergency trip from the Tafuna substation to the burning apartment building took more than forty-five minutes it seemed to me (who woke up later); those who started calling before 5 a.m. said it was more than an hour before the first fire truck arrived.

It was strange that we could hear the sirens sounding off after the calls for help were made, but it was way too long before the help arrived. And you would think the police should have arrived much earlier to secure the place (as people were endangering their lives by going in to salvage what they could), but the police arrived with the firefighters. When the first fire truck arrived in front of the building, I noticed the firefighter at the passenger seat got out of the truck, put on his firefighter jacket, and proceed to do his work (without a firefighter protective helmet on).

I would say at least 80% of the building was burned by the time the fire fighters arrived. They finally controlled the fire by 7 a.m. or after, or so they thought. It appeared what’s left of the building was still smoldering as it started to burn again in the afternoon; so the fire department was called to return and complete their job.

The following week a fire started to break out at the LBJ Hospital finance building and was timely extinguished. It’s obvious the fire truck got there sooner than the incident of the previous week — although, the word was that by the time they got there, quick thinking by LBJ’s maintenance crew to douse the roof with water, had controlled the fire, and the firefighters had a much smaller fire to extinguish. But like the previous week, I noticed in a Samoa News photo that the firefighters again weren’t wearing protective helmets, as if they were openly asking for an OSHA scrutiny. (OSHA- Occupational Safety Health Agency is the main federal agency that’s charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation).

Weren’t there any lessons learned from the Laufou Shopping Center fire of ten years ago? Why did it take 45 minutes to an hour to get a fire truck to the scene of the fire two weeks ago?  With the Department of Public Safety realizing a second quarter surplus of over $300,000 as reported by the media last week (if I understand the report correctly), why are some firefighters putting out fire without protective helmets (I’m assuming there are not enough protective helmets to go around)? 

If the slow response to the aforementioned fire was due to fire truck mechanical problems, the aforementioned surplus should be used to fix the problems or buy new fire trucks; and for goodness sake, procure protective gear including helmets!

With the Fono and governor’s office incurring second quarter budget deficits (with projected annual overruns of over a million and six hundred thousand respectively), I can see the writing on the wall — the DPS surplus and other surpluses will be reprogrammed to cover our policymakers budget deficits before the end of the fiscal year. After all, it is ASG policy that revenues from the next fiscal year cannot be used to off-set the current year liabilities (if my understanding of said policy is correct).

Or with the 40 promotions the DPS recently awarded — perhaps instead, the surplus will go to fund payroll increases, instead of equipment or repairs & maintenance? 

In moving our ship forward, the next Fono and administration, who will be faced with limited resources, need to engage a better protection or risk management policy to include taking careful measures to prevent or at the very least control exposure to litigation and resulting liabilities. 

Having a properly equipped and well trained fire fighting department is a must in this effort to save money and more importantly avoid human suffering. Perhaps it is time to consider dividing the Department of Public Safety into a police department and a fire department.

In the same vein, ASG needs to engage its lawyers to review (competently) all costly cases ASG lost including the recent Marisco case; and make necessary risk management recommendations so to avoid or minimize litigation costs and losses. 

Equally vital is the need for the Fono and governor’s office to check their budget overruns. In tough times such as these, strong, compassionate, and wise leaders need to arise and take control of and skipper our territorial ship forward.  

Otherwise, these costly unplanned, unbudgeted, and often unnecessary expenditures will continue to cut into the economic, educational, and health care developments of the territory- our children’s future.