Thu | Jun 13, 2024

FIRE ALARM

JFB feels heat over large number of vehicles out of service, lukewarm response to probes

Published:Wednesday | March 29, 2023 | 1:46 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.

The Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB) has investigated fewer than one per cent of the 44,764 genuine fires reported over the last five years and conducted only 10 per cent of follow-up inspections on buildings flagged for non-conformity between 2017 and...

The Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB) has investigated fewer than one per cent of the 44,764 genuine fires reported over the last five years and conducted only 10 per cent of follow-up inspections on buildings flagged for non-conformity between 2017 and 2022, an audit has revealed.

Further out-of-commission fire and emergency vehicles constrained the JFB's ability to effectively respond to fires across the country.

The agency is also in breach of the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act and the Fire Brigade Act, which may have resulted in it owing the Tax Administration Jamaica (TAJ) more than $80 million from statutory deductions not handed over, which, as of January, remained unresolved.

Those findings, among others, are contained in the performance audit report produced by the Auditor General's Department (AuGD) on the management of fire prevention activities within the JFB.

The 48-page report was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.

The audit was triggered by the findings of a 2014 audit, which showed that there was a high incidence of out-of-service emergency vehicles, which affected JFB's ability to carry out its firefighting activities, emergency medical care and rescue services.

The JFB was also not adequately managing its fire prevention activities to minimise injuries, loss of life, and damage to properties.

Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis said the follow-up audit sought to determine the progress made by the JFB in improving its operations and systems of internal controls as well as whether it had implemented the 2014 recommendations.

Monroe Ellis said that the JFB has made significant improvements in its operations and partially implemented three of the four 2014 recommendations, but noted that the organisation needed to improve its governance practices.

The audit found that as of February, the Brigade's non-operational vehicles accounted for 41 vehicles, or 39 per cent of the fleet of 105 fire and emergency vehicles.

The JFB's records showed that the vehicles were out of service largely because of engine and transmission failure, leaking water tanks, mechanical issues, and accidents.

Further, vehicles were being serviced between two months and two years after the required service dates.

The JFB indicated that it was unable to adhere to maintenance schedules for some vehicles because of inadequate funding, the decommissioning of vehicles that frequently broke down, and the removal of some with major mechanical defects from the active fleet to be serviced.

However, Monroe Ellis said that it cannot be discounted that prolonged delays in servicing vehicles would exacerbate some mechanical problems, thereby contributing to an increase in the number of out-of-commission vehicles.

The audit also found that JFB's rate of building certification was affected by a high degree of nonconformity among structures inspected, but noted that the organisation's rate of follow-up inspections for nonconformities was relatively low.

The report said that for five selected parishes, 3,623 – or 46 per cent – of the 7,873 building inspections were not certified due to nonconformities identified.

Between 2017 and 2022, the JFB conducted 36,868 inspections, which covered buildings within the applicable groups. Nonconformities included the absence of an emergency plan, no fire alarm system or smoke detector installed, an inaudible fire alarm system throughout premises, loose electrical wiring, and deficiencies in emergency exits, among other defects.

More than half the buildings inspected in Kingston and St Andrew, St Ann and Portland did not conform to fire safety standards.

Further, the report found that rate of follow-up inspections for nonconformities was approximately 10 per cent.

“From a sample of 500 inspections conducted over the financial years 2017-2018 to 2021- 2022, we identified that follow-up inspections were conducted for only 49, or 10 per cent, over the period,” Monroe Ellis said.

POLICY REQUIREMENT

She said that JFB's policy requires that delinquent owners of specified buildings are given a specific time for corrective action, although the length of time was not indicated.

“Nonetheless, the policy required follow-up based on the nature of the breach or nonconformity. JFB's low rate of follow-up inspections on specified buildings where nonconformities were identified would have undermined enforcement activities while increasing the risk of safety hazards,” she said.

Monroe Ellis said only 210 of the reported 44,764 fires over the five-year review period were investigated by the JFB.

The organisation noted that fires were selected for investigation based on the criteria established in its fire investigation handbook, but the auditor general said her team's review of the handbook showed no evidence of established criteria.

Nonetheless, she said that the criteria outlined in JFB's fire investigation policy, which was developed in May last year, require investigation of fires that caused death or serious injury, structural fires, fires believed to be incendiary in nature, explosions, any unique or complex situation involving a suspicious or consequential fire, wildland, or bushfires of a predetermined magnitude, among other things.

Monroe Ellis said of the 210 investigations conducted, JFB presented 100 reports for review, which revealed that the major cause of fires investigated were due to accidents.

The audit revealed that the JFB it is yet to prepare and submit annual reports and audited financial statements for the period 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, in breach of the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act and the Fire Brigade Act.

The JFB's management attributed the delays to high attrition among key staff, but the auditor general said that the delay in submission of the reports would have limited the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development's and the Parliament's oversight of the organisation.

Further, she said that the JFB is awaiting a waiver for accumulated interest and penalty in the amount of $80.6 million owed to TAJ for the period 2013-2016 in relation to statutory deductions.

“We identified that all five of its bank accounts were not reconciled for periods ranging from one month to 29 months. JFB's failure to prepare monthly bank reconciliation increased the risks of financial losses as management may not be able to promptly identify and correct accounting and bank errors or irregularities, including erroneous debits, which could result in losses,” said Monroe Ellis.

Additionally, the JFB's approved budget for the period 2017-2018 to 2021-2022 was consistently lower than the requested budget.

Monroe Ellis said that despite a trend increase, budget allocations were less than requested, as reflected in acquisition of firefighting equipment where budget requests averaged $320.5 million, while the approved budget averaged $184.5 million.

“Accordingly, given the budgetary shortfall, which was 23 per cent for 2021-2022, JFB would have been required to adjust its priority areas relating to the acquisition of firefighting equipment,” she said.

In concluding, she said that the JFB should increase its follow-up building inspection activities to ensure that all deficiencies are remedied within the specified period as per its building inspection policy.

She said that enforcement mechanism applicable under the Fire Brigade Act should be utilised for owners of specified buildings who are found to be in breach.

“JFB should ensure strict adherence to the applicable Acts and circulars in relation to the preparation of annual reports, audited financial statements and bank reconciliation statements; and submit all such outstanding reports and financial statements to the portfolio minister for tabling in the Houses of Parliament,” she said.

kimone.francis@gleanerjm.com