Monday, February 8, 2016

Poor safety culture

The other day, I visited a friend at one of the five-star hotels in Jeddah. Suddenly, the hotel management announced that it would conduct a fire drill and urged its guests to evacuate the building as part of the drill.
The curious thing about the announcement was that although it described the fire drill as voluntary, management would forcefully enter any hotel room, which the guests did not evacuate. The reasoning was that in the event of a real emergency, Civil Defense teams would naturally break into rooms to rescue guests.
There was some ambivalence among guests about whether to participate in the drill, and of course, more than enough grumbling that hotel security would actually break into rooms and violate their privacy if they chose not to participate.
The drill was timely following the disastrous hospital fire in Jazan that killed 24 people and injured 123. This fire was especially tragic since it occurred in the maternity ward and neonatal unit. So far, no details have been released that could tell us whether newborns and mothers were among the victims.
What is of special note, however, is the criticism leveled at the so-called Good Samaritans who may have contributed to the death toll. 
Top officials blamed the number of deaths on the crowd gathered outside the hospital. They complained the crowd, which they described as a “mob,” prevented Civil Defense rescue teams from entering the building. Worse, many in the crowd rushed into the building to help with rescue efforts. About 50 of these do-gooders were injured and had to be treated by rescue teams, which took them away from rescuing the original fire victims.
The incident involving the crowd points to two problems: The crowd’s behavior during the fire is indicative of Saudis and expats having little confidence in the ability of government rescue teams to perform their job properly. This is hardly the first incident of crowds becoming unruly while watching rescue operations and attempting to take matters in their own hands. Second, the average onlooker allows his emotions to get the better of them and as a consequence exercises poor judgment.
Many lives are saved by Good Samaritans who happened to be in a position to perform heroic deeds. Recently, a Saudi nurse on the highway between Jeddah and Madinah saved the life of a man involved in a traffic accident. But I have also traveled the same highway and observed more than my share of accidents in which dozens of motorists converge on a traffic collision to aid the injured. To what extent does so many people really help is a mystery.
The message here is that if an individual is certified to treat injured people, by all means allow them to do his job, even if he is off-duty. If an individual has no expertise or training, then the only reasonable thing to do is stand out of the way and let the professionals do their job.
The same attitude should be applied to safety drills. At least one report on the Jazan hospital fire stated that some fire exits were chained shut. No official investigation has reached the same conclusion, but if these reports were to be believed routine fire drills would have immediately exposed this safety violation. If the hotel where my friend was staying ordered its guests to exit the building via the stairwell and found a fire door locked, then lives would be saved in the event of a real fire.
There is a tendency among Saudis to let fate dictate our choices. In other words, the future will be what it’s to be and we have no control over it. But by the same token our choices will dictate our fate. By choosing to participate in fire drills and to avoid rushing into a burning building without the slightest hint of what we are doing, we are setting a course to save lives. And that is our fate as well.

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