Heads must roll for inaction that cost firefighters' lives

09 September 2018 - 00:00 By SUNDAY TIMES


Nick Paget-Brown stepped down as leader of the local council in London after the Grenfell Tower apartment building caught fire, killing 80 people. That's what happens in societies where there's accountability: heads roll when administrative inaction costs lives. Reports at the time were that fire inspectors had warned repeatedly that the building was a fire hazard.
In SA, the opposite is true. Three firefighters died this week in a fire at the Bank of Lisbon building on Pixley ka Isaka Seme Street, central Johannesburg, which houses three government departments. What we've learnt in the aftermath of that tragedy is that those brave firefighters stood no chance. Simphiwe Moropane fell to his death after he apparently smashed the window on the 23rd floor to get air. His air cylinder was empty. Johannesburg has 15 working fire trucks for 5-million residents.
This is how one rescue technician described the shambolic state of the city's fire department: "It's so bad we have to buy our own gear, especially guide ropes and safety multitools. Our torches are useless. Until a few years ago we shared face masks."
If we lived in a normal country, politicians and other high-ranking officials responsible for this sordid state of affairs would be falling on their swords.
But not here, where the blame is always pointed at the other person. The DA, which runs the city, will say it's not its problem but that of the provincial government. The Gauteng government will say: "But we don't manage government buildings, we lease them from the department of public works." That department will say: "We have a maintenance backlog."
It's not only government buildings that are fire hazards; many high-rise structures in the inner city should have long been condemned. A list that was released by Gauteng premier David Makhura's office shows that eight buildings, including his own office at 30 Simmonds Street, do not comply with health and safety standards.
Until there is political and administrative will to deal with this crisis, and people are held accountable, firefighters will risk their lives to respond to emergencies that should be preventable.

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