Thursday 28 September 2017

St Conflagration's N.S.

The vast majority of National Schools (5-11 y.o) N.S. are owned by the local church but the staff salaries are paid by central government. It turns out that many recently constructed schools fail to comply with fire-safety regulations. The so far discovered known-to-be-deficient premises were all constructed by an outfit called Western Building Systems. It couldn't have been better named because of the association of Westerns and cowboys. I'm sure tabloid headline writers will be having fun over this. The Dept of Education are caught in a turmoil of weasel-words: "The Department, at this stage, do not have any reason to believe that there are any fire safety issues in respect of any of the other buildings built by Western Building Systems. These audits are a proactive measure being taken, following on from consultation with stakeholders, to satisfy the Department that there are no further issues with school buildings constructed by that company." If the schools are not compliant with fire-regulations, they are not safe for continued use, and the kids should be sent home. The Department and the Minister Richard Bruton are trying to face off this most awkward eventuality by suggesting that identified deficiencies are only minor problems like a battery missing from a CO detector. Logic dictates that one fire-defective building from the WBS pipeline do not have any reason gives every reason to believe that their other schools have similar issues. There can be no minor infringements of fire regulations: if a rule doesn't have the potential to kill people it shouldn't be in the regs.

Yesterday, I was on about Sanofi, a multinational MegaPharm company, being unwilling to undertake the recall of a product despite 40 years of ever-accumulating evidence that it was teratogenic in a way not dissimilar to Thalidomide. Thalidomide was deliberately targeted at pregnant women as a remedy for morning sickness, so that was doubly culpable. The case of Epilim is slightly different, in that there are 50 years of data to show that it is an effective anti-convulsant and preventer of epileptic seizures. Some epileptics are women and some of those fall pregnant, and some of those have continued to take Epilim as the foetus developed inside them. The fact that they were not alerted to the dangers of the drug is a different sort of culpable negligence; they were a form of collateral damage. The feeling among druggists and regulators seems to have been that by pointing out the dread equation of pregnancy + drug = damaged babies, unwarranted anxiety would have been formented among unpregnant epileptics and some / many / all of them would have been left without an effective medicine against their condition. You don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have seen that ordinary people have trouble doing the math of assessing relative risk with, for example, Gardasil HPV vaccination. The government regulator, The HPRA, Health Products Regulatory Agency, An tUdarás Rialála Táirgí Sláinte, has the expertise and a duty of care to make sure that everyone in the firing line from MegaPharma is sufficiently informed before they consent to taking the drug.

What about the Department of Education? Do they have a duty of care for their employees, the teachers, and their clients, the children? How is this manifest? Making sure that the classrooms, washrooms, hallways and playgrounds are clean, safe and fit for purpose. When we returned to Ireland in 1990, at the tail end of the desperate 1980s  recession, investment in educational infrastructure had been severely curtailed. Tales were told of toilet-blocks with weeping green slime on the walls; of class-rooms with bulging plaster because the gutter outside hadn’t been fixed for two winters; of cracked windows and broken door-locks. As the Celtic Tiger started to growl and then roar there was money sloshing around to fix many of these deficits. But a booming economy attracted back the Irish diaspora and also Poles, Brits, Nigerians who came to experience the good times. These willing workers tended to be young and soon there were children at foot needing to be educated; which meant more kids in school and new school buildings and indeed new schools.
In the building boom, most of the toilets got fixed, the wear-and-tear damage refurbished and schools became cleaner, warmer and more functional places to get an education.

The Minister is going to appoint a DoEd Clerk of Works to oversee future new-builds contracted for by the Department. One has to ask why there is no such functionary already and the shadow spokesperson for Education asked this very question on the radio. But his party, when in power, had not seen fit to make such an appointment. The math of the matter is that, outside of Detroit or Los Angeles during a race-riot, the destruction of schools by fire is a rare event. Successive governments have ignored the possibility because, with a finite budget, they had no appetite for turning over stones in the forest in case they turn up a toad or rather a fire-dragon. It's not really grown-up to adopt an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it attitude to fire safety. A school's fire safety is not demonstrably broke until one goes up in flames and/or the fire-escapes don't work.

Grenfell Tower in London [R, burning] was similarly ignored because Towering Inferno is only a film and the inhabitants of Grenfell were mostly poor. Numerous Celtic Tiger housing schemes, including Priory Hall, [thrown up in 2007 but found deficient and evacuated by court-order in 2011] were built asap in a rush for turn-key profitability. Local Authorities across the country took fees for planning permission but culpably failed to employ inspectors to go visit the buildings as they were going up to ensure that each unit was fire-stopped from those surrounding it and that the to-be-hidden materials in the building's fabric were a) present and b) of functional standard. Here's the catechism:
  • Who issues fire-certificates for schools? 
    • The same goons who issued fire certificates for Priory Hall without leaving their desks in County Hall.  
  • Do you believe that Western Building Systems is the only school building contractor which has cut corners since, say, 1998 and the beginning of the boom?
    • hmmmmm?
  • Should the Department of Education have their own, higher, standards of safety? 
    • Aye, surely. 
  • Have they in the past?
    • Nope! 
  • Will they in the future?
    • This Clerk of Works is going to put a lot of miles on his limousine.
One radical TD has suggested that WBS should be black-listed and never ever get a government contract again. Fairy nuff, but boom-time contractors, who cut corners to get buildings up quickly, tended to go bankrupt before the deficiencies of their construction became evident. Those once and future entrepreneurs are now champing at the bit to get back into construction under a new company name. Expect the People's Front of Building Services to appear on a building site near you soon.

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