What the blazes? Row over lack of fire trucks gets ugly
Johannesburg has only 10 fire engines to service 31 stations. It needs 29
Until recently, firefighters at the Turffontein fire station in the south of Johannesburg allegedly often had to hitch a ride to fires in state ambulances, carrying their hoses over their shoulders and hoping there was a hydrant close by that they could connect to.
This was because the “super station” had no fire trucks, despite being designed to support smaller stations in the south of the city. Instead, the fire trucks had been loaned to other stations. Recently, one was returned, but quickly earmarked for the Sandton fire station, which is in an equally dire situation.
Two weeks ago, a standoff erupted into a protest in which officials were blocked from removing the vehicle.
Firefighters at the Turffontein fire station have nicknamed it “the scrapyard” because it is in a state of disrepair. The huge roller doors, installed in 1976, are broken and cannot close.
The stations’ problems are not unique.
There are only 10 fire engines (trucks that carry water) to service the city’s 31 fire stations. A tender to supply more vehicles was halted shortly after the DA took over the municipality in 2017, owing to suspected corruption. Almost two years later, a new contract has not been awarded.
The lack of these emergency vehicles has been confirmed by Joburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson Nana Lindiwe Radebe, who said the city does not meet the national safety standard.
“After the 2017 tender was cancelled, the process for further investigation was handed to the city’s Group Forensic and Investigation Services.”
Of the 29 fire trucks needed, the city was this year able to obtain five newly built and two refurbished fire engines. It expects the remainder to be delivered six months after placing its order, once the tender process is finalised.
The city does not meet the SANS code 10090 (SA National Standard – Community protection against fire), “but the department is working towards complying”.
Regarding claims that firefighters had to catch lifts to fire scenes, Radebe said: “There is no way firefighters can respond to an incident without the required equipment to fight fires. A fire engine is required to get the correct pressure to connect the hose and do firefighting.”
It is not only a shortage of fire trucks that is of concern.
In his 17 years at the Turffontein fire station, Godfrey Williams, 40, has seen the decline.
“We call it the scrapyard. You need to see it for yourself. The doors, installed in 1976, don’t even close.”
Three years ago, the Turffontein station had two fire trucks, a heavy pumper and a turntable ladder (TL), used in conjunction to fight fires in Turffontein and surrounding areas.
But three years ago the pumper truck was sent to Eldorado Park and the TL to Florida, where it broke down.
Acting deputy director of operations for the city Yolanda Mciwa said the trucks did not belong to a station specifically. “The City of Joburg EMS operates within districts and, therefore, [is] pulling resources to assist each other if or when the need arises.”
The TL was returned to Turffontein after two years, but was immediately sent to Florida again. It finally made its way back to the station three weeks ago, but had allegedly been stripped of all its equipment. Williams said the only thing that remained was the fixed ladder, “because it can’t be removed”.
Two weeks ago Mciwa arrived at the station to take the truck to Sandton. Williams and his crew refused to release it, using ambulances to block it in. He said they were joined by members of the EFF and the ANC.
In a written response, Mciwa said: “The district that Turffontein fire station falls in has four fire engines and all other districts have two fire engines, whereas the Sandton areas do not have a fire truck. Hence the decision to take the ladder from Turffontein to cover the other communities around Sandton.”
But Williams disputes this: “That truck is used for accessing tall buildings, it doesn’t carry water and there is no way that that huge truck can navigate the narrow roads of a township, no ways.”
Wynand Engelbrecht, a former task force commander for Sandton Fire, who now runs Fire Ops SA, a private firefighting and rescue service in Midrand, agreed.
“That is a ladder truck; it needs support vehicles to carry water because there isn’t a lot of water in Alex [in the form of hydrants]. That truck is best for the high-rise buildings in Sandton."
The City has between 13 and 20 operational fire trucks. Radebe said 81 fire trucks are in the workshop. “However, most of these are either uneconomical to repair or irreparable due to age or unavailability of spare parts.”
The matter of adequate fire trucks and equipment was again raised when, on September 5, a firefighter fell to his death and two of his colleagues died after a blaze engulfed the top of a building housing the offices of Gauteng Health and Human Settlements on Sauer Street in downtown Johannesburg .
MMC for public safety Michael Sun said at the time the city was struggling with a shortage of fire engines. “We are going to make the procurement of fire engines a priority. We have a massive backlog.”