International Fire Protection: Jamaica

Jamaica is experiencing increased investment in the real estate sector due to, amongst other things, its geostrategic location and its proximity to the USA. The fire protection challenges faced by those involved in the building sector are explained here using the example of this emerging country.

International Fire Protection: Jamaica
Fig. 1: Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean. A new Building Act was introduced in 2018 and took in effect on 19 January 2019. (Source: Google Earth, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO Landsat/Copericus)

By Karl-Olaf Kaiser. Jamaica is the third-largest Caribbean island and its economy is highly dependent on tourism (the East Coast of the USA is around four hours away by plane). In addition, modern service sectors are rapidly becoming more important economically e.g. for the growing BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) market. Three of the largest private employers are BPO companies. In particular, these companies require modern offices and buildings that meet the appropriate standards [1].

While the local and international professional investment in the real estate sector in Jamaica was previously mainly in the hotel sector, investment is now increasingly also being made in office and administrative buildings, as well as large residential and shopping complexes.

The legal and technical standards in Jamaica were traditionally based on British regulations – this was also the case in the building sector.

In this context, the number of illegally built/utilised buildings and the informal settlement of land squatting cannot be underestimated – following one source around 70% of the buildings in Jamaica were not formally planned or constructed [2]. 20% of the population in Kingston live in so-called squatter settlements – housing based on informal claims to the land [3]. Because of the economical conditions of the predominant poor inhabitants most of these informal housings are not insured. In a case of fire the affected persons are therefore especially hit hard (see Table 1).

Following flooding’s due to three hurricanes in Jamaica (2005) and the severe earthquakes in Haiti (2010: 316,000 deaths, around 1.85 million people left homeless) [4], the pressure to also formally introduce modern standards in the building sector has grown.

About Jamaica

Jamaica became a British colony in 1670. The island was shaped for around 200 years by the plantation economy (e.g. sugar cane) – based on the slave trade from Africa.

Jamaica is half the size of Hesse (Germany) and divided into 14 administrative districts (parishes). About 850,000 of the around 2.7 million inhabitants live in the area around Kingston and St. Andrew.

Jamaica was granted political independence on 6 August 1962. The country is a parliamentary republic and a commonwealth realm, i.e. the Queen of England is formally the head of state – represented by a Governor-General. Two political parties (JLP Jamaica Labour Party and PNP People’s National Party) have taken it in turns to govern the country since then. The JLP and Prime Minister Andrew Holness have been in power since the beginning of 2016.

International Fire Protection: Jamaica (Table 1: Excerpt from the fire statistics for Jamaica)
Table 1: Excerpt from the fire statistics for Jamaica (Source: JFB, [13])

Development of the Jamaican Building Act 2018

Based on the initiative of the Jamaican Institute of Engineers (JIE) and in cooperation with the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) on February 27, 2003 a stakeholders’ conference was held to determine the process for achieving a modern and comprehensive National Building Code. Those involved in the building sector came to an agreement to introduce the planning standards used in the USA [5]. The American International Codes were analysed and associated Jamaican Application Codes were published (2009) – which were voluntary standards because in the absence of an updated and modern Building Act. Several I-Codes alongside it Jamaican Application Documents were firstly introduced to those acting in the building sector, e.g. JS 314:2009 Jamaican Application Document for the International Fire Code, JS 306:2009 Jamaican Application Document for the International Building Code. In early 2010 a committee was set up on initiative by the JIE and under the BSJ aegis to support a draft for a new Building Act. This Building Act should mandate the use of the new Building Code inter alia. At least three drafts (2011, 2013, 2016) were published (under four responsible ministers of local government). [6] Finally in January 2018, both houses of parliament passed a new Building Act that was signed by the Governor-General on March 9, 2018 [7]. Moreover, in 2018 the responsible Ministry of Local Government and Community development and the various stakeholders of the building sector contribute to develop several building regulations which concretize the new building act. The thirteen building regulations will deal with, e.g.:

  • The Building Act (Forms and procedures for submission of application for building permits) Regulations,
  • Manner of service of any notice required under the Act,
  • The Building Act 2018 (Records and information) Regulations,
  • The Building Act (Control of activities related to the building process) Regulations,
  • The Building Act (Enforcement and compliances measures) Regulations,
  • The Building Act (Permits and licences) Regulations,
  • Change of building use,
  • The Building Act (Liability for collapse of building works, responsibility of professionals) Regulation.

This new Building Act of 2018 (and its regulations) displaces the former Building Act which was originally enacted in 1908.

The goals of the new building act include:

  • The regulation of building measures and changes in the use of structures through building approvals in order to guarantee, amongst other things, public safety and order, as well as health.
  • The enforcement of the national building code, i.e. implementation, adaptation and efficient application of internationally recognised building standards, as well as accreditation for building products.
  • The establishment of an efficient and effective system for the issuing of building permits and usage permissions.
  • The regulation of the standards for the training and certification of those involved in the building sector, e.g. building practitioners and building professionals.
  • The definition of building activities (categories and degrees of difficulty) that may be carried out by the qualified building practitioner (e.g. a technical drawer) or must be completed by building professionals.

The qualification and authorisation of “building practitioners” in relation to planning is a contentious issue in specialist circles, e.g. amongst architects and engineers who are members of their respective professional institutions. It is still common legal practice in Jamaica for plans and building applications for “small or uncomplicated” residential buildings (< 300 m2) to be submitted by draughtsmen. As Jamaica is located in the earthquake and hurricane zone in the Caribbean, unprofessional planning and execution can be a very critical issue. This will not change with the new building act and has been criticised by representatives from architectural bodies [8]. Following its publication in the Gazette and an announcement by the responsible Minister McKenzie in December 2018, the modern building act will come into force on January 19, 2019 [9]. It will be valid throughout the country and it also officially implements and mandates US planning standards with appropriate Jamaican adaptations. 

(American) International Building Codes

International Fire Protection: Jamaica: International Building Code etc.
Fig. 2: International Building Code etc. (Source: Karl-Olaf Kaiser)

Hence in 2018 Jamaican planning law has been officially based on the system used in the USA of International Codes, in short, I-Codes, since the introduction of the new Building Act 2018. These standards are “model codes” for the 50 US federal states and are published by the International Code Council Inc. At the moment, each I-Code is supplemented by a Jamaican Application document.

Consequently a large number of planning specifications need to be observed in Jamaica. In addition, it is necessary to work not only with the original US documents but also the national Jamaican applications and many specialist standards, e.g. from the National Fire Protection Association. In the last years the BSJ, applying planners and building companies etc. already recognised that this double-strategy and amount of planning documents were challenges. As part of the legislative process for the new Building Act 2018 and with support from international financiers and development programs, the current aim is to merge together the relevant associated I-Codes and Jamaican application documents in 2019. Furthermore, numerous education and training initiatives will be used to increase awareness for planning and building in accordance with the I-codes, as well as to promote acceptance for the codes within the building sector. It can be stated that the previous and historic focus on England regarding standardizing is gradually changing. Jamaica not only imports many everyday products from the USA but also building products such as fire protection doors, dampers, partitions, drywall elements and technical safety systems – and in the meantime: Codes.

International Fire Protection: Jamaica (Table 2: International Building Codes)
Table 2: International Building Codes

Approval process

Building projects are approved by the responsible authorities in the parish councils. In general buildings covering more than 300 m2 must be planned by registered architects and engineers. The client (rather his architect) has to submit a set of the corresponding planning documents to the building authorities.

As part of the approval process, a planning sheet has to be submitted to the local department for fire prevention of the Jamaica Fire Brigade for their expert evaluation. Usually the architect and technical building planner (ventilation, sanitary, and electrical) submit the plans hold one/multiple meetings to agree on the required measures with the expert from the fire brigade and these requirements are entered in the plans. In terms of fire protection, the application form defines the required information e.g.:

  • Lengths and widths of escape routes
  • Fire detection systems
  • First aid and firefighting equipment
  • Passive fire protection
  • Hydrants (must be indicated on the plans)
  • General information relating to the safety of the user [10]

Especially in the case of complex building projects, there has not been any legal obligation – or stipulation from the fire brigade – up to now to submit a holistic fire protection concept incl. visualisation. The associated advantages this would bring for those involved in the building sector in Jamaica are still waiting to be exploited. 

International Fire Protection: Jamaica (The main fire station in Kingston)
Fig. 3: The main fire station in Kingston (Source: Karl-Olaf Kaiser)

Fire fighting and challenges

The Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB) that is organised and funded by the state is responsible for fire fighting in Jamaica.

There are 33 fire stations with around 91 vehicles and three fire boats spread across the island [11]. The JFB is confronted with various different problems which are specific to the country and that are mostly due to the very limited state funding:

  • Partly very basic, in some cases quite old fire stations
  • Limited or in some cases very restricted availability of emergency vehicles and materials
  • Quite long response times, e.g. due to difficult road conditions in the countryside
  • Problems with the water supply, e.g. a lack of or insufficient hydrants (also primarily in the countryside)
  • In Kingston: very high amounts of traffic

Especially the first two mentioned challenges are under on-going improvements in the last years. Just in December 2018 the responsible Minister for Local Government and Community Development Mr.Desmond McKenzie handed over a new fire-boat, new fire-boat station and two fire-trucks. „I‘m proud to announce that in our forecast of the 2019-2020 financial year, instead of putting in requests for two or three trucks, we‘ve put in requests for 10 trucks and two additional fire-boats for the parishes of St Ann and Portland.

We‘re anticipating that by the end of the financial year 2020 going into 2021, the JFB would be in a position where every fire station in the country will have a working fire unit,“ McKenzie told the firefighters at the ceremony.” [12]

Alongside its firefighting role, the JFB is also responsible for the approval processes and the recurring inspections of the state of buildings.

In its young history, Jamaica has fortunately not experienced any fires with high numbers of casualties (see table). Like elsewhere in the world the classic function of the JFB is developing from fire fighting to technical emergency rescue in a high number of car accidents (more than 300 deaths in 2018).


The relatively young country of Jamaica is confronted by numerous economic and social challenges that also have an impact on fire fighting and prevention. The modern building act that was introduced at the beginning of 2018 is thus a welcome development.

The process to update the planning code – also for fire protection – has begun. In light of the increased level of investment in real estate currently being experienced in Jamaica, these are important prerequisites for fire protection.


Dipl.-Ing. Karl-Olaf Kaiser: Graduate degree in safety technology with a focus on fire and explosion protection (University of Wuppertal, Germany). Project manager for BPK Brandschutz Planung Klingsch (2000 - 2016, office manager 2013 - 2016), Freelance fire protection consultant (since 2016) with experience in numerous large projects, e.g. Berliner Schloss – Humboldt-Forum (Berlin, Germany: 2010-2016), Norman Manley International Airport (Kingston, Jamaica: 1999 - 2000).

Author of several books and many publications (since 2006): Amongst others, Brandschutztechnische Bauüberwachung – Haustechnik (Fire safety construction monitoring – building technology services) (2008), German Fire Protection (2015), Brandschutz in China (Fire Protection in China) (2017)

International experienced lecturer (since 2008): For, amongst others, FeuerTrutz, DSF, EIPOS, VDI, Jamaica Fire Brigade, Caribbean School of Architects.

The article was published in FeuerTrutz International, issue 1.2019 (January 2019).
More information about eMagazine FeuerTrutz International


[1] Goodman M.: The Business of BPO’s In: Kuya Jamaican Realestate and Lifestyle, Edition Winter 2018; Publisher: Coldwell Banker Jamaica Reality

[2] , accessed on 11/08/2018

[3] , accessed on 11/08/2018

[4] , accessed on 11/08/2018

[5] JS 306:2009 Jamaican Standard Jamaica Application Document for the International Building Code, Bureau of Standard Jamaica

[6] The long journey towards a National Building Act – Pt.2 in: The Sunday Gleaner 06/01/2019

[7],%202018%20No.%203.pdf , accessed on 20/05/2018

[8] “Architects predict costly outcome, fear erosion of professional standards from building bill” In Jamaica Gleaner from 11/02/2018

[9] , accessed on 06/01/2019

[10] and , each accessed on 10/01/2018

[11] , accessed on 16/05/2018

[12] , accessed on 06/01/2019

[13] Jamaica Fire Brigade: Compiled yearly fire statistics received on 13/02/2018

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