Protect thine hind end

Published:  14 November, 2014

What can happen to safety and security supervisors who take their responsibilities seriously? George Potter in Madrid (Spain) puts together some cautionary tales.

The safety and security director of a major commercial mall in a suburb of Madrid, Spain during the two year span 2009 through 2011 took his position and its supposed responsibilities to heart. Those responsibilities included the supervision and application of the centre’s Emergency Response Manual, evacuation procedures, all fire detection and extinguishment systems and emergency communications amongst others for this several thousand square metre facility. The activities of this mall include a mega supermarket, several very large multinational specialty stores and dozens of smaller shops, cinemas and diverse restaurants and bars. On any given weekday, and depending on the hour, between several hundred and several thousand shoppers can be present, with ages from three months to ninety or so years and in nearly every possible physical condition. During peak shopping periods – special discount sales, seasonal sales and similar economically enticing periods, as many as ten thousand people with the aforementioned characteristics will be in and around the facility.

Thusly, when the former safety and security director discovered serious discrepancies and faults in the establishment’s Emergency Response Manual that included references and data of a local football stadium, he informed the mall’s management. Soon afterwards, a “new and revised” Manual was presented by the external consultants who had in fact prepared the initial, erroneous Manual. On reviewing the new document, he discovered that this one turned out to be in fact a copy of an emergency response plan for a school. He subsequently rejected this manual, again informing his superiors of the situation. During this period, he also informed verbally and in writing of what he considered as serious deficiencies in several significant safety areas, including broken anti-panic bars on several evacuation doors, evacuation routes blocked by merchandise or temporary commercial stands no operating permits, lack of adequate fire extinguishment measures in numerous areas of the mall and other serious faults.

These deficiencies were also communicated to the municipality’s city hall, the local police and even to the workplace safety inspection office of the national Labour Ministry. His complaints brought no replies. The mall’s management claimed that all safety measures were in compliance with the existing requirements and that in fact were even superior to those requirements.

The end result of his scrupulous compliance with his responsibilities was that his contract was immediately terminated. Apparently his successor is displaying a lower professional profile.

On May 29th, 2013, an un-licensed inflated castle attraction for children was situated in the mall’s exterior parking lot exploded hurtling four young children between the ages of three and 10 years off the attraction. Two were projected upwards and landed on a roof 8 metres high while another child was dragged some 100 metres over the ground. The medical examinations performed possibly by the mall’s medical attendants indicated only minor injuries of little or no importance. The children’s parents were not at all in agreement with these results and were reported to be considering legal actions against the mall. This specific incident brought forth the ex-safety director who also publicly denounced the mall and its management. This is just one of the far too frequent situations that safety and security managers face in their dedication to life safety and physical security.

The author experienced a similar situation several years ago while instructing emergency responders in a hydrocarbon storage facility. On showing the participants a fire equipment locker that supposedly contained several lengths of fire hose, branch pipes and accessories, the sealed locker was found to be empty. The group revised several other lockers in the vicinity, breaking the lead and wire seals in order to open the lockers and found similar contents – the absence of the required materials.

The facility’s security and safety manager was informed of these discrepancies. He looked into the inspection records of the facility’s fire protection contractor, which indicated that the lockers, as well as the rest of the plant’s fire protection equipment and systems were required in compliance with requirements and standards. Shortly afterwards, he was removed from that particular training programme by his superiors. He found out some time later that the fire protection contractor was the son of the storage facility’s owner.

The third example had more tragic yet further on in time significant and beneficial consequences. In the mid 1970s in one of Spain’s major cities, the municipal fire brigade’s chief had been requesting increased staffing, new apparatus and equipment, to no avail. Late one evening, a major fire occurred in the local hydrocarbon and LPG storage plant. The entire on-duty brigade and a number of off-duty personnel responded with nearly every piece of the brigade’s fleet. After several hours of battle, the chief requested assistance from a nearby United States Air Force base. The Americans dispatched several airfield crash tenders with personnel, and not long after their arrival, got the fire under control and eventually extinguished. There were no casualties. The city’s government at that time was notoriously anti-American, so the outcome of the incident was a rather chilly “thank you” to the Americans and the relief of the chief from the brigade.

Some time afterwards, a new brigade chief was appointed. The new chief also made repeated requests for increased human and material resources and received the same negations. But this new commander had a different mentality than his predecessor, he demanded that each rejected request be signed, officially stamped and dated by the responsible politician. Each request/negation was filed in a specific place in his office.

Three years after the change of brigade chiefs, a disastrous fire occurred in the city’s most prominent hotel, situated literally around the corner from the city’s only fire station. The early morning fire made severe demands on the city’s emergency response units, not only fire but ambulance and hospital emergency reception personnel and vehicles as well. 79 victims died in this tragedy.

Almost immediately following the fire, judicial investigations called in the fire chief, in a political attempt to place blame on someone, anyone, except the politicians.

The chief brought out his files; a request for several new fire fighters – rejected, a request for new mobile fire apparatus – rejected, and on and on. The end results of the investigations, hearings and trials; the municipal councilman responsible for public safety was relieved, the mayor lost the following elections, a new, ultramodern central fire station was built and commissioned, two satellite fire stations were also built, 60 new fire fighters were hired and trained, the country’s most complete “state of the art” computerized communications and dispatching system was incorporated, all less than three years following the tragedy. The chief held the position until his retirement more than 20 years later, he also served as the President of the national fire fighters association for more than a decade and was often called upon to speak at international fire protection congresses and conventions. He did indeed protect his hind end.

These and similar incidents and situations, some with tragic consequences, demonstrate that those responsible for the security, safety and protection of people and materials must make all efforts to recognize and report faults and failings, even at the possible expense of their positions. A fundamental job function is precisely that, uncovering and denouncing those faults. On the same hand, senior management, be it private sector corporate or political, must have the integrity and resolve to accept the information and do all in their power to correct the mistakes and errors. It’s very easy and simple to make the security/safety manager a scapegoat, but a real leader/manager will have the courage to face the facts and take the necessary corrective actions.

  • Operation Florian

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