A fire service unworthy of any serious country
Regardless of the attempts in the Parliament to save face and shift blame after the auditor general's report on the frightening state of the fire brigade, the fact still remains that the service is really running on fumes.
The auditor general's report showed that the fire service received only $629.7 million of the $5.1 billion, or less than 13 per cent of its request from the budget to meet its capital expenses over the last five years, including acquiring new vehicles and equipment as well as repairing vehicles and fire stations.
According to the report, the fire service has deteriorated to the point where even its headquarters in Kingston did not meet its own fire safety standards, although fire brigade officials have been taking action against owners of buildings inspected and showing the same deficiencies.
"The deficiencies include loose and exposed electrical wires, missing electrical panels, and the need for fire extinguishers, fire alarms and automatic smoke detectors," Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis revealed.
But Mrs Monroe Ellis also pointed out that her audit found that the fire brigade does not even have a comprehensive policy to guide building inspection activities.
In addition, she found that 41 per cent of the brigade's fleet of 75 emergency vehicles was out of service at the time of the audit; the brigade was not assessing its response time to emergencies; its pilot emergency medical service, which provides pre-hospital care, was down from six ambulances to one, reducing its ability to respond to less than 50 per cent of its emergency calls, and it no longer has a functioning fire boat to support fire-fighting services.
Surprisingly, after the tabling of the auditor general's report, Mr Colin Fagan, the junior minister in the local government ministry, announced that $171.3 million has been budgeted for the fire brigade to acquire additional vehicles and equipment, and to repair those currently being used, during the current fiscal year.
According to Mr Fagan, $90 million of the sum is to be used to purchase three fully equipped fire trucks and one ambulance, while $21.4 million will go towards repairing a fire boat, several fire trucks, and two ambulances for the Emergency Medical Service.
Given the picture painted by the auditor general's report, these half measures will not fully meet the fire brigade's needs. However, we accept that the Government has limited funds to address a large number of problems, some of which are extremely critical.
To be fair, successive administrations have paid some attention to the fire service, most times acquiring significant assistance from friendly governments, especially the United States and France.
However, we believe there is great need for better management of the fire brigade's resources, complemented by keen monitoring by the Ministry of Local Government.
We have no doubt that the country's firefighters are dedicated to their jobs. However, they must be provided with the resources that will allow them to respond more quickly, particularly as they reported to this newspaper last December that more than 100 Jamaicans lose their homes to fires every month.