At least ten people have lost their lives due to a fire at a halting site in Carrickmines, County Dublin, and though the final toll hasn’t yet been established, it seems that many of the dead are children. That, however, didn’t stop the underbelly of Ireland from reacting in the vilest possible way on TheJournal.ie, resulting in that site being forced to close its comments.
Many people saw the multiple deaths as an opportunity to attack Travellers, rejoicing in the loss of life of adults and children. Blaming victims.
This is the biggest single loss of life in a fire since the Stardust in 1981 and no doubt there will be an inquiry as a result, but that in itself prompts deeper questions. Why does the State abhor multiple deaths but live happily with loss of life when it happens one victim at a time? Fifty or sixty people die every year in Ireland due to fire, but most die in their beds, causing no demand for inquiries, though we do go through the annual charade of Fire Safety Week with badly-written radio ads and contrived slogans that nobody heeds.
STOP: Smoke alarms. Test your alarm. Obvious dangers. Plan escape routes.
S-T-O-P. Get it?
How ironic then that ten people should have lost their lives in a single incident during Fire Safety Tokenism Week.
Unfortunately, it seems that the real purpose of official fire-prevention in this country is to prevent people dying in large numbers, because that creates headlines and headlines create problems for politicians. It’s not the number of deaths official Ireland abhors, but their manner and their timing.
It appears that the fire in Carrickmines involved two housing units but it’s still unclear what the nature of those units was. They might have been caravans, they might have been mobile homes or they might have been some sort of semi-permanent structures. It also appears that there might have been more people living on the site than it was designed to accommodate, but that isn’t certain yet. However, if true, it means that there were extra units on the site, making it easier for a fire to spread from one to the next. If the units in the fire were fixed structures, questions will be asked about their nature. Were they provided by the local authority or did the residents build them? Who, if anyone, checked them to see if they were safe in case of fire?
[Update. 12 Oct 2015. It is now clear that the people were living in Portakabins or the equivalent, which are suitable as building site offices and the like but are not designed to be used as housing.]
Travellers often, though by no means always, opt to live in a caravan or a mobile home rather than a house, and our laws are framed to facilitate this choice, as a result of a Supreme Court action presented by former President, Mary Robinson. If Travellers wish to live on a halting site in caravans and mobile homes, the local authority must, by law, respect their wishes.
But caravans, site huts and mobile homes are inherently unsafe when a fire breaks out, for several reasons. Firstly, they burn easily and quickly. Secondly, caravans offer no alternative means of escape if they catch fire. The only way in or out is the door and if a caravan does catch fire, it will go up in seconds.
Caravans are dangerous.
On the other hand, Travellers have a legal right to live in them if they so choose and no local authority has the power to prevent that under the law, so therefore what, if anything, can the local authority do to minimise the danger? Very little, it seems, apart from offering fire prevention training and perhaps installing a firefighting hose-reel on the site as some councils have done in the past. They can’t control the caravans because if they insisted on all caravans meeting a specific non-combustibility test, they would more than likely be in breach of their constitutional obligations to respect Travellers’ nomadic traditions.
They can, however, prevent spread of fire from one unit to the next by insisting on a minimum physical separation between them, or by building screen walls to block thermal radiation. In the Carrickmines site, no such precautions existed, as this Google Earth satellite photo illustrates. The units at the lower right of the picture are the ones involved in the fire and it’s quite plain that they are far too close to each other for safety.
On the other hand, we now know that all fatalities occurred in a single unit, and therefore, in this instance, spread of fire from one unit to another was not a factor.
In the specific instance of the Carrickmines disaster, we can probably rule out arson. By all accounts the Traveller families living on the site are well-liked in the area and coexist happily with their settled neighbours. They seem to be people who fit in very well and who have no enemies, so what caused this terrible event?
If you put the proverbial gun to my head and demanded an answer, I’d say that, like all disasters, it was probably caused by a combination of things. Ignorance of fire-safety principles — far from unique to the Traveller community — the inherently dangerous nature of caravans and other temporary structures, failure by the local authority to properly audit the site for fire safety, the absence of first-aid firefighting equipment and the lack of smoke detectors.
The most lethal factor, though, must be the time of the fire. Smoke rarely wakes people up. Long before you might expect them to start coughing, the carbon monoxide has already done its work, though this is by no means always the case, so we have no idea if these poor people were aware of what was going on or not.
A fire is the most disorienting thing imaginable. Even a familiar bedroom becomes an alien, unimaginably difficult place when filled with searing hot poisonous smoke. Unless you have specific training, you don’t find the door. You just die.
It seems to me that the local authority has difficult professional and ethical questions to answer, and it might well find itself having those questions put to it by an authority other than itself.