As Johannesburg grapples with systemic firefighting issues, pr …

After several criticisms of residents and a court of law, there has been little or no improvement in the city of Johannesburg’s firefighting capabilities in recent years, opening up a void in the private firefighter market.

Robert Mulaudzi, spokesperson for the emergency services of the city of Johannesburg, confirmed that the shortage of fire trucks continues to be a problem.

“Ideally, we should have at least 30 fire trucks (first responders) operating daily in the city’s 30 fire stations, but currently we have 12 fire trucks strategically placed in high risk areas to respond effectively to fires. all over town, ”he said. noted.

According to recent reports, the number of fire trucks available in Joburg at any one time is significantly less than 12. Mulaudzi said the town’s fire trucks are old and spend most of the time in workshops instead of be on the road serving the city’s residents.

Mulaudzi played down the crisis, saying Johannesburg has around 1,500 reported fires each year at its 30 fire stations. While declining to give details on average response times, he said if emergency services were to find themselves in a situation beyond their capacity, other subways could help.

“As an interim measure, the city has put in place a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with neighboring municipalities, the city of Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, for support and assistance in the event of a major fire where the available resources of the city may be insufficient to respond, ”Mulaudzi said.

This will probably not reassure the people of Johannesburg who rely on local services to respond quickly in the event of a fire to reduce the loss of life and property.

In an email response to Daily Maverick on how many times Tshwane emergency services have responded to the call to help the city of Johannesburg, spokesman Thabo Charles Mabaso said three times, including the Bank of Lisbon fire in 2018, l fire at the Charlotte Maxeke hospital in 2021 and the fire at the China Mall or Dragon Fire at the city’s warehouse in 2021.

“We respond as emergency resources to major incidents or disasters in all Gauteng subways, district municipalities and other municipalities beyond, upon request,” said Mabaso.

As the city of Johannesburg struggles to fulfill its obligation to establish and maintain adequate firefighting capabilities, private firefighting company Fire Ops SA has stepped in to fill the void.

Wynand Engelbrecht, CEO and Fire Chief at Fire Ops, said: “We created the private services about four years ago due to the obvious vacuum created when Johannesburg City Council proved for the umpteenth time that they did not. were unable to get hold of fire trucks when one effort after another fell flat. They are still in this position, with a very slight improvement in recent months. “

Led by former city firefighters, Fire Ops says it operates differently in that it operates from six patches or satellite points across Johannesburg and operations run seamlessly.

“It’s either you call the 24-hour emergency line or you use the fire operations reporting app that places the call on the phones of the entire crew within 60 seconds, including position coordinates, ”Engelbrecht said.

Fire Ops operates in the Johannesburg metropolitan area and classifies approximately 60% of its services in the “community engagement” category, which it responds to free of charge, while 40% is intended for subscriber customers, including industrial, commercial, corporate, and corporate customers. fleet management and owners.

“The owners generally pay R 35 per month or rather R 420 per year in advance as a basic provision; then, when we deal with a fire in such a person’s house, we charge them for the operation. They pass the bill on to the insurer, who then covers the expenses, ”Engelbrecht said.

Emergency services declined to comment on the privatization of firefighting services. Mulaudzi said: “About private services, I don’t want to comment on them because they don’t respect the [Fire Brigade Services Act]. “

Fire Ops SA appears to be the only private firefighting service in Gauteng. Engelbrecht said: “We are fully compliant with the law in providing the service to our residential and business customers. “

Michael Sun, DA advisor to the city of Johannesburg and former MMC for public safety, expressed his concerns about private fire departments.

“Emergency management services such as firefighters and medics cannot be a privilege reserved for those who can afford it. [them]. These must be a fundamental right to the provision of services, regardless of one’s socio-economic position.

“This is why I think the government should partner with the private sector to strengthen the emergency rescue service, but also regulate to ensure that it does not become an exclusive service based on affordability,” Sun said.

The deterioration of the fire service system has led and continues to result in the deaths of residents and firefighters and the preventable destruction of hundreds of millions of rand of buildings, assets and businesses.

Over the years, there have been several reports of lives and buildings destroyed by fires due to the broken Johannesburg city firefighting system. Among those that made headlines were the fire at the Bank of Lisbon in 2018, and the fire at the informal Gazine settlement this year and the fire at the Charlotte Maxeke hospital.

Thobile Zungu, a resident of the informal Gazine neighborhood near the Kwa Mai Mai market in Johannesburg’s CBD, said she lost everything in the April fire.

“If only izicishamlilo [the fire brigade] was there on time, maybe some of my belongings would have been recovered. More so, the nine lives lost in the fire could have been saved.

“I can’t stop but I wonder if the city is even capable or ready to respond to a fire. They are unnecessary. It is either that they react too late to the emergency, or that they come with half-full water tanks, ”she continued.

The city’s plans to procure new fire trucks were delayed under the ANC and DA governments as rival bidders went to court. According to Mulaudzi, the procurement process is finally underway.

“The good news for our residents is that we have been given a budget to purchase new vehicles and the process is at an advanced stage which will remedy the current situation and help us provide efficient emergency services to all of our residents. residents at all times, ”he said. noted.

The procurement plan is divided into two parts:

  • During the current exercise, 15 fire and rescue vehicles, two tankers, a telescopic lifting platform and a hydraulic platform will be acquired; and
  • During the next fiscal year, five additional fire rescue vehicles, two telescopic aerial ladders and hydraulic platforms will be purchased.

Although the city appears to attribute its firefighting problems to its lack of fire trucks, that shortage could simply be a symptom of its failing emergency services, which means private firefighting services like the firefighters could be here to stay.

More serious shortcomings in emergency services, Engelbrecht said, include a lack of professional incident command and radio communications in the field.

“The situation has been seriously aggravated by the fact that municipal structures do not comply with national requirements, let alone the operational standards set out in the Fire Services Act for firefighting and rescue which require a superbly coordinated and well-developed management. plan, ”Engelbrecht said.

Sun admitted that the collapse of the emergency services was caused by the negligence of city governments, causing a significant drop in morale among firefighters.

Oliver Wright, who works in private emergency services but commented as a resident of Johannesburg, said the city’s fire and rescue portfolio has been steadily declining since at least 2012.

“While politicians may argue that the fleet of fire and rescue vehicles operated by the City of Johannesburg has passed its useful life, the reality is that a number of fire engines within the fleet of the city would still be fully operational if they had simply been properly maintained.

Wright said the city under ANC and DA administration continued to nominate incompetent and inexperienced candidates for the MMC role for public safety, who in turn failed to nominate leaders competent firefighters. DM

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