Better to be safe than sorry

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

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This newspaper must confess to being shocked by the revelations during our interaction with Jamaica Fire Brigade Commissioner Stewart Beckford on Monday.

As, we suspect, is the case with many Jamaicans, we had assumed that the Jamaica Fire Brigade operated on the basis of a solid, comprehensive set of laws that allow firefighters to do their work without hindrance.

Further, our assumption was that crucial ingredients such as facilities for personnel training were in place for firefighters, as is the case for the army and constabulary.

Instead, what we gathered from our discussions with Commissioner Beckford and his team is a report of serious shortfalls and inadequacies — the sum of which seems to suggest that even as Jamaica strives for sustainable economic growth and First World status, not nearly enough is being done to protect itself from disasters of all sorts.

We were told, for example, that while the Fire Brigade Act stipulates that it has responsibility to inspect places such as cinemas, theatres, schools, and hospitals with a view to safety, the Act does not allow inspection of private hospitals and homes unless it forms part of an apartment complex and is above a certain height.

“We believe that is a weakness because most of the fires that we now have are occurring in residential homes,” says Commissioner Beckford.

Also, while some people — we are told including those in the business of selling water — trespass on the property of the fire brigade by taking water from fire hydrants, the fire brigade is apparently unable to take any legal action. Indeed, the act of stealing water from fire hydrants is not punishable by law.

“Private water suppliers are not to access these hydrants because that's trespassing on the property of the brigade. But the unfortunate thing is that we don't have anything in our legislation that can cause us to bring any kind of action in the courts against these persons…” Commissioner Beckford said.

To compound matters, Commissioner Beckford reported that the fire brigade has no dedicated facility for training recruits, ongoing refreshers, or for urban rescue training.

Alarmingly, Commissioner Beckford pointed to multiple tremors in the Caribbean just recently. Should there be a major disaster of that type “we would be hard-pressed to effectively conduct search and rescue because the capacity is just not there”, he said.

To provide training, the fire brigade must spend huge sums on renting facilities, on sending staff overseas, and in bringing experts, he said.

Though the fire brigade has acquired 43 acres of land at Twickenham Park in St Catherine, in the vicinity of the National Police College of Jamaica, with an eye to a training centre, there are no firm plans for development, the commissioner said. An estimated $2 billion will be required to build the facility, we are told.

It seems to us that it is always better to be safe than sorry. Regardless of cost, the Government has to move with speed to correct these inadequacies afflicting the nation's fire services.

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