Editorial: Ho-hum fire brigade
Jamaica's fire chief, Errol Mowatt, was candid last week that his brigade does not have all the resources to adequately respond to the spate of brush and forest fires from which the island has suffered in recent months, the result of a long drought and scorching temperatures. In some circumstances, he says, the fires will just have to burn themselves out.
This approach is not uniquely Jamaican. For it is sometimes the situation that even with the most advanced technology, adequate resources and highly trained and skilled firefighters, nature, after a certain point, just has to be allowed to take its course.
But Mr Mowatt's frankness does bring to the fore just how equipped and prepared the Jamaica Fire Brigade is to do the job that is assigned to it, and how it coordinates it efforts with other agencies and institutions of the government and private sector.
If people were asked, the popular perception of the fire brigade, we suspect, is of some men on trucks who turn up at burning buildings, usually long after the property had reached the point of saving. There is not this sense of the brigade as a specialist, highly trained emergency response agency. Its image is kind of ho-hum.
Should Commissioner Mowatt want an example of the perception of his organisation, he need only listen to the residents in the eastern hills of St Andrew and heading to the middle reaches of the Blue Mountains where bush fires have destroyed scores of acres of coffee plantations and threatened people's homes. The view, largely, is that the fire service was slow to respond, in some cases did not know how to respond, and was slow to engage the support of other agencies, such as the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) and its specialised equipment.
In one recent case, for instance, frustrated residents complained of asking the JDF about using their helicopters to transport water to douse out-of-control fires that threatened people's homes, only to be told that the operation structure required the request to come from the fire brigade, which, it seemed, was slow in acting.
Quite rightly, Mr Mowatt will point to his resource constraints. The fire brigade was, for this financial year, voted a budget of J$5.2 billion. Several years ago, it said it needed multiples of this sum to train its staff, upgrade its facilities, and repair and buy new equipment, some of which it is in the process of acquiring.
Our view of the needs of the Jamaica Fire Brigade is of more than equipment and need of facilities, which is not to suggest that these are not important. But first, the brigade needs a sense of itself - as an institution at the forefront of the response to emergencies, including fire. The agency has to internalise the breadth and importance of its job and how to be a world leader at it, even within the limits of its resources. That means a relentless drive for operational efficiency and the leveraging of resources from partner agencies.
This agency demands leadership that will likely require the fire chief's ambition to transcend the confined thinking of the policymakers in the local government ministry. Hopefully, Mr Mowatt has it in him to become that kind of leader.