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n RISKS AND INSURANCE:

Fire services out of sync with island’s needs

Published:Sunday | February 25, 2024 | 12:09 AM
Stewart Beckford, commissioner, Jamaica Fire Brigade.
Stewart Beckford, commissioner, Jamaica Fire Brigade.
Firefighters tackling a fire.
Firefighters tackling a fire.
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A FEW days ago, I read the Jamaica Fire Brigade’s (JFB) report on its activities for the 2023 calendar year that was published in this newspaper. Details of the report were not posted on the brigade’s website at the time. Also absent was JFB Commissioner Stewart Beckford’s analysis of the information that was featured in The Gleaner and reports for earlier years.

Suggestion: The JFB should consider partnering with a non-life insurer or the industry lobby, the Insurance Association of Jamaica, to upgrade its data capture capability as stage one of a process to periodically publish data on the frequency of fires on its website.

Here is a summary of the JFB 2023 data about the number of fires that was highlighted in the report: Residential – 1,195 (72.6 per cent); commercial – 343 (20.9 per cent); other – 107 (6.5 per cent); total – 1,645 (100 per cent).

Residential fires grew at a rate of 10.6 per cent in 2023, while commercial fires increased by nearly double that amount, 21.1 per cent. Most of the latter events occurred in Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine.

Even though Commissioner Beckford did not provide any information about the causes of the fires, he offered other comments that are worthy of note:

Smaller commercial establishments tended to more affected by fires than the larger ones.

People’s livelihoods and lives are disrupted by fires. Small companies often “tend not to have the wherewithal to get back on their feet within a quick time”.

This information has implications for businesses in the small medium-sized sector, insurers and brokers. When the Portmore Mall fire occurred in 2001, most of the persons who operated shops did not buy fire insurance to protect their fixtures and inventories. They sought a government bailout. The same thing happened at the Portmore Plaza in December 2022, when millions of dollars of property went up in smoke.

I would not give a passing grade to Commissioner Beckford’s report because – it did not state how many persons were killed and/or injured in fires last year; and no information was provided about the brigade’s average response time to calls seeking emergency assistance. Citizens have a right to know this information.

While an activity report deals with what has happened in the past, it must also deal with the future, specifically the growing trend in the construction of high-rise buildings and JFB’s preparedness to deal with fires in these buildings.

No estimate of the total damage caused by fires was provided. Losses of property reduce the productive capacity of the economy.

The report did not discuss the constraints that were hindering JFB’s performance and what the brigade’s leadership was doing to address them.

I last wrote about the JFB on April 2, 2023, under the headline ‘Synchronising fire service with high-rise trend’. That title did not fully capture the essence of the article. The article said that the island’s fire services were out of sync with the construction of high rises and that authorities are aware of this fact.

Here are a few examples from the auditor general’s March 22, 2023, performance audit report that support this conclusion.

Nearly 10 years after its 2014 report, the JFB has partially implemented three of the four (75 per cent) of the auditor general department’s recommendations.

Six (or 40 per cent) of 15 of the recommendations from the JFB’s 2019 National Fire and Rescue Cover aimed at improving JFB’s effectiveness in fighting fires and responding to emergencies were implemented.

‘Out of commission’ fire and emergency vehicles (FEVs) limited the JFB’s ability to respond effectively to fires. As of February 2023, the JFB’s non-operational vehicles accounted for 41 (39 per cent) of the 105 FEV fleet. Engine and transmission failure; leaking water tanks; mechanical issues, and accidents were the main problems. Actual service intervals exceeded recommended service intervals by two to 24 months.

The JFB’s rate of building certification was affected by a high degree of non-compliance among buildings inspected. The rate of follow-up inspections for non-compliance was low. For five selected parishes, 3,623 (or 46 per cent) of the 7,873 building inspections were not certified due to non-conformities identified.

Section 22 of the Fire Brigade Act authorises the commissioner or his nominee to enter any specified building or part thereof at any reasonable time to determine the condition of the building regarding its safety against fire or other disasters.

From 2017-2018 to 2021-2022, the JFB conducted 36,868 inspections. Non-compliant features included the absence of an emergency plan, fire alarm system or smoke detectors, an inaudible fire alarm system, loose electrical wiring, and deficiencies in emergency exits, among other defects.

In relation to the deficiencies, only one out of every 10 buildings that failed to meet the required standard was followed up.

The JFB investigated less than one per cent (210) of the reported 44,764 fires over the five-year review period.

The approved budgets for 2017-2018 to 2021-2022 were consistently lower than the requested budget. The total recurrent expenses for 2021-2022 were $7.3 billion, while projected capital expenses were estimated at $1.9 billion. About 90 per cent of the recurring costs was allocated to compensation.

It is hoped that allocations to this agency during the 2024-2025 financial year will provide some of the resources that are required to address the many deficiencies in the JFB.

If you require assistance managing risks or solving insurance problems, Cedric E. Stephens offers free counsel and advice. To obtain information and counsel, please write to The Business Editor at business@gleanerjm.com or contact Mr Stephens directly at. Letters and e-mails will be edited for clarity and length.