On August 18, 2009, the Barbados Ice Cream Company (BICO) was almost completely destroyed by fire after over a century in operation. This disaster changed not only the lives of its employees but the overall direction of the company as well.
BICO???s Chief Financial Officer, Shafik Faizool, gave the Barbados Government Information Service a first-hand account of how the company was affected by the fire.
He remembers that the day started almost like any other: ???We were having the annual inspection of our boilers but otherwise it was a normal day. I got up, went to work and just after sunset, I went home.???
Around 7:30 p.m., while sitting at home, Mr. Faizool received a call from one of his co-workers to say there was a fire at BICO. Despite this unsettling news, he admitted that he did not take it very seriously:
???Honestly, I didn???t think it was really anything big, but I called my boss who said he was already on his way there. After I hung up the phone, I decided to go and see what was going on.???
Unable to believe that a place he had just left a few hours ago was now being razed by fire, the Chief Financial Officer recalled that he remained cautiously optimistic, even as he saw ???smoke billowing up into the air??? while driving along Spring Garden. However, his latent fears were confirmed when he turned on to Harbour Road.
???The fire was burning high from the roof of the factory building with a lot of thick, black smoke and even though we were a way off, we could still feel the heat of the fire. To tell you the truth, it was really frightening. The police and fire officers had barricaded the area, so we were kept more on the southern side of the road.???
At the time, BICO was celebrating 108 years of service and employed about 123 persons, some of whom had worked with the company for over 30 years. Those workers were forced to stand and watch the fire helplessly.
???When I looked at the faces of the guys, many of them were in tears because they just didn???t know what was going to happen. This was their livelihood. In fact, we all would have greatly lost if BICO had completely burned down. A number of people also started gathering outside; well-wishers, persons from our insurance company, clients who came out of concern and you could see they were all emotionally affected.???
Unsure of how far the fire would spread, the BICO workers got to work salvaging what they could from the Administrative Building, under the guidance of the fire officers. While the Fire Service was doing their best to control the blaze, they were severely hampered by low water pressure.
BICO also had tanks of ammonia that were used to cool the machines in the production area, so the Fire Chief was hesitant to send in his officers, at the risk of them being exposed to this ammonia. Thus, the fire continued to burn through the night and for the next few days, only stopping when it reached the cold storage section.
BICO has fire inspections on a regular basis and several fire extinguishers are positioned throughout the company. So, the question on everyone???s mind was what started this fire. Luckily, the company also had a network of closed circuit cameras which revealed what had happened.
The Chief Financial Officer was shocked when he saw the footage: ???As I said before, our boilers were being inspected and we used a particular company that has been doing it for a number of years,??? he began.
According to Mr. Faizool, after everyone left, these workers were still ???doing some grinding and welding on the stainless steel boiler???. He identified that as part of the protocol, they were supposed to have a fire watch for twenty minutes just to ensure everything was safe before leaving, but they did not do that.
A small fire started and Mr. Faizool lamented that when this fire was discovered by one of the welders, instead of running to the fire extinguishers or notifying the guard, they all ran outside. Shortly after, the fire spread to the packaging and raw material storage area and eventually raged out of control.
It has been five years since the fire at BICO, and the company has had to make many difficult adjustments to overcome the challenges caused.
Management had originally estimated to be back in operation within nine months, but by the time they received the insurance payment, the expenses incurred to keep the business going prevented this. ???A lot of people assume that because a company is insured that they don???t have to worry about anything, but the reality is far from that,??? Mr Faizool said.
But, in spite of these challenges and how things have been going with the economy, he stated that BICO has been able to hold its own after the fire: ???Fortunately, we got some product out of Canada so we never stopped our supply; however our business model changed from manufacturing to distribution. We also got some concessions from Government to help us through this period. Also, our employees have a more united spirit as they know from first-hand experience that we are in this together and we are all affected by disaster.???
Also listening attentively to Shafik Faizool???s recount of the fire at BICO was Station Officer in the Barbados Fire Service, Henderson Patrick, who then confirmed that continuous training of staff is a key element in fire safety.
???It doesn???t matter if you have the right amount of fire protection equipment and alarm systems, if people do not respond accordingly when these things are required, you will still experience major loss of assets and even lives. The BICO fire is an excellent example of how one company???s lack of training can affect another. This is why all businesses should always ensure that their staff is trained in how to use the equipment and know how to react when the alarm goes off.???
Mr. Patrick also explains how businesses can contact the Barbados Fire Service to attain this training for members of staff: ???We facilitate fire safety training to any business who contacts us by either going to their location to do both theoretical and practical extinguisher training, or if that cannot be accommodated at the business??? location, we would have the training at either the Airport or Arch Hall Fire Stations.???
The damage caused by the fire at BICO could have been avoided if the persons which discovered this fire were adequately trained. Do not let a lack of preparation cause you to lose your business to a fire.
To request training in fire safety measures or to have an approved fire inspection, contact the Barbados Fire Service???s Fire Prevention Unit at 435-4646 or 436-5139, or its Training Unit at 435-4251.