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Earthquake Awareness Week and the Passing of Jamaica's New National Building Act

Published:Friday | January 23, 2015 | 12:00 AM
The clock tower of the ancient St James Parish Church bears mute testimony of the severity of the 1957 earthquake which afected Montego Bay and other western areas.
Contributed The remains of a house on Harbour Street, Kingston after the 1907 earthquake.

THE PURPOSE of Earthquake Awareness Week (or month) is usually to encourage citizens to be more aware of what to do in the event of an earthquake. This, we believe, is essential as the public must be made aware of how to protect themselves in the event of such a disaster.

However, what we believe is also of tremendous importance and worthy of mention for Earthquake Awareness Week 2015 is the establishment of the New National Building Act by the Government of Jamaica.

What we would also like the citizens to be aware of is that no amount of awareness can prevent damage to buildings that have not been designed in accordance with the new national building code to withstand


In a Jamaica Observer article of July 11, 2009, the then Minister of Industry Investment and Commerce Michael Stern stated that: "The Department of Local Government in the Office of the Prime Minister will be responsible for enforcing the code under a new building code act expected to be passed in the House of Parliament later this year."

In an article published in the Observer on January 6, 2014, Local Government Minister Noel Arscott stated that: "The promulgation of the revised building bill is far advanced and it will be tabled in Parliament before the end of the legislative year on March 31 (2014)."

We are, therefore, using this opportunity to call on the Government to move with urgency to establish the New National Building Act, since the bill was submitted to the chief parliamentary counsel in the last quarter of 2012. We would like to mention again that studies conducted by the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) and published in the Jamaica Observer on January 6, 2014, revealed that, on average, just over 60 per cent of the public buildings in the Kingston Metropolitan Region are not earthquake-resistant. We believe that this should have alerted the Government to act with alacrity in the passing of the New National Building Act to support the new national building code. However, to date, the act still has not been passed and we are not satisfied with the updates from the Government as to the progress that is being made with its promulgation.


In order to further highlight the significance of this act, we will now list some of the benefits of having a National Building Code in place. These include:

n The construction of safe buildings thereby reducing deaths, injuries and property damage in the event of an


n The reduction of the cost to individuals and the Government for recovery.

n The reduction in the need for disaster aid.

n Provision of comfort for home buyers that their buildings meet the minimum standards for safety and soundness.

n The speeding up of the recovery process.

n Allows for sustainability of building structures - for each $1 increase in construction cost, there is a long-term benefit of $3 to $16 (Property Casualty Insurers Association of America).

n Minimises insurance premiums and claims and puts less pressure on the insurance industry.

n Creates jobs for engineers, building inspectors and artisans.

We will not go into the intricacies of the benefits of the code, but do hope that the listing of the benefits would also create an awareness that the New National Building Act is long overdue and the engineering community and other related professionals would be very grateful if the building bill could be put on the front burner for debate in Parliament. History has shown that the development of building codes only tends to occur after a serious disaster. We do not want this history to repeat itself for Jamaica, where only after serious loss of lives and property in the 1907 earthquake did the Government act with alacrity to put in place our first legal building code. The Government should, therefore, act now and expedite the process.

The Government should also be reminded that the passing of the building act is just part of the process, and the next stage, of putting measures in place for the enforcing of the act, should have already been in process so that there is no delay in the local authorities when the act is passed. Building codes are usually enforced at the local level. It cannot be overemphasised that building-plan reviewers and building inspectors are integral to the success of building codes. Provided that the local authorities are not adequately staffed with qualified and trained personnel, the value of the building code will not be realised.

We are, therefore, admonishing the Government to ensure that adequate resources are put in at all of the parish councils across the island so that all Jamaicans can garner the benefits of the national building act.

n Andre White is the president of the Jamaica Institution of Engineers (JIE). This article was

prepared by the Technical Advisory Group of the JIE.