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Private companies compete with crippled government firefighting services

14 December 2021 - 07:00
The burning Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg in which three firefighters died in 2018. File photo.
The burning Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg in which three firefighters died in 2018. File photo.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

While the City of Johannesburg hopes its fourth attempt to secure firefighting vehicles bears fruit next year, a private firefighting company has taken over a large part of the services.

Johannesburg emergency services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said they had received a budget to procure new vehicles, which they would hopefully receive sometime in 2022.

“Our procurement plan will see 15 vehicles, including tankers, rescue vehicles and telescopic and hydraulic platforms, bought this financial year and an additional five fire and rescue vehicles and two telescopic aerial ladder and hydraulic platforms the next financial year,” he said.

In April this year, the high court in Johannesburg set aside a tender worth more than R500m awarded to TFM Industries to supply the city with 92 fire and rescue vehicles.

While the city should have a minimum of 30 fire engines for its 30 stations, Mulaudzi confirmed that equipment shortages continued and that the city only had 12 fire engines. 

“But they are strategically placed in high-risk areas. They are our first turnout vehicles. Before there used to be 30 fire engines operating daily,” he said.

I just can’t imagine how they service the poor of the poor because they simply don’t have the vehicles to do it.

But Wynand Engelbrecht, CEO and fire chief at private company Fire Ops, said fire brigade services in Johannesburg are almost non-existent.

“Over the two past administrations there were at least three conservative efforts to buy fire engines. All of these efforts have fallen by the wayside and it seems to have ended in some sort of corruption.

“I just can’t imagine how they service the poor of the poor because they simply don’t have the vehicles to do it. And it takes them anything between 20 or 30 minutes or sometimes even an hour to arrive at a scene. Being late in those kinds of areas can be devastating,” Engelbrecht said. 

He said that in 2017 it became clear to him that something needed to be done.

He started the private fire service Fire Ops.

“I decided to follow the security company model and started a private service. The challenge is to have financial structure to support you, so I modelled it in such a way so that I have clients which pay monthly subscriptions,” he said.

Fire Ops operates within the greater Johannesburg area and has more than 50 firefighters.

He said he had reached out to the City of Johannesburg on two occasions to ask them to appoint Fire Ops as a contractor for a period of five years.

“They are simply too proud to respond to that, but the offer still stands. Our operation is as legal as theirs,” he said.

City of Tshwane emergency services department spokesperson Charles Mabaso said they had assisted the City of Johannesburg on two occasions — with the fire at the Bank of Lisbon in 2018 and the fire at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.

Meanwhile, Ekurhuleni emergency services spokesperson William Ntladi said the municipality was self-sufficient in terms of resources and there was no need for private fire services.

In KwaZulu-Natal, private fire service Rural Metro Emergency Management Services was founded in October 2000.

CEO Chris Gilbert said the company was started to “build a fire capacity where it was lacking”.

“Whether it be municipal or private companies or where risk profiles are high and they require dedicated firefighting services. We provide full term solutions.”

He said the company has around 320 firefighters.

Gilbert said the model has been successful in five provinces in the country — the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

“Our priority is to assist where we can whether its life, property or communities. We can never turn our back on that.”

He said clients pay a contract fee based on their risk category.

Retired fire chief Ronnie Cloete said there was a lack of training and fire engines and the dispatch centres within the department was non-functional.

“Training used to be done on a regular basis, but it’s not done any more. There is a lack of training of firefighters. You have to bring people into the services that are already slightly qualified, they should have matric with mathematics and science as subjects. Firefighters use science to learn chemicals and use mathematics for hydraulics and water supply.”

Cloete said the fire hydrants and vehicles were also not serviced and maintained properly. “The maintenance of the vehicles is absolute shocking and also not properly looked after.”

Mulaudzi denied this, saying the inspection of fire hydrants is part of their daily duties when responding to incidents.

“It is an important exercise to make sure that the hydrants in respective areas we operate in are fully operational.

“When found not fully operational or damaged we report it to the relevant authorities — in this case it will be Joburg Water. This kind of inspection also assists us to be familiar with the areas we service for effective swift response as and when there is any emergency. There are no special instructions issued since that is part of our daily operational duties” 

Cloete believed there was a lack of “political will” and urgency to deal with the problem.

“There is no political will in the city of Johannesburg to save lives and property. If there is a political will they will get the right people and equipment to do the job.”

He said private fire services stepped up after provincial authorities failed to provide basic services to the people.

“Private fire services are the way to go and I think there should be more of them to assist the people who are in trouble. Somebody has to look after the people.”

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