Q&A with Johannesburg's head of public safety & emergency services Michael Sun

It's been a tough year for Johannesburg's head of public safety and emergency services Michael Sun. Chris Barron asked him...

16 December 2018 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON

You've been in the job for more than two years. Are you making any progress?
We came into the city having to unveil a lot of surprises.
Does Johannesburg have the capacity to handle large fires?
We've always been very open about the state of emergency management services and the shortage of fire engines, but we very much are making progress.
So why were 500 shacks in Alexandra gutted before you could control the fire?
Eyewitness accounts say it was arson. Petrol was used. The shacks are so tightly built next to each other the fire spreads very quickly and access is a nightmare. No ambulance, no fire engine can get inside the fire. We sent out five fire engines and had to redeploy two to fight another fire nearby.
Why no fire hydrants?
The hydrants were covered by shacks that were built over them. The one hydrant our firefighters were able to find was broken.
Why did it take so long to put out the fire in the Lisbon building?
There was no water in the building. Second, we need to understand what was stored on the floors that fuelled this fire for two solid days. There was no compliance with safety regulations.
Isn't this something your department should have picked up on?
An assessment had been done by provincial government indicating it was only 20% compliant. The department of labour is the custodian of the Occupational Health and Safety Act .
If you're responsible for putting fires out in these buildings shouldn't you ensure they're compliant?
It is the owner of the building that is responsible for [its] safety. We will go to assess and evaluate.
Did you?
They [the provincial government] had already done that on their own, so they knew the building was noncompliant.
How many other buildings in the city are fire hazards?
So many hijacked buildings don't comply with safety regulations.
A year ago you said the emergency services were ready to keep residents and visitors safe. Was that a bit premature?
No, that was a statement of undertaking that we stick by.
What have you learnt from the Global Citizen Festival disaster?
Lesson one: the volume of traffic coming into the venue created such congestion that the organisers didn't anticipate .
Why did your metro police fail to manage the traffic?
We deny that. We're not going to point fingers, but we've started an investigation and if it was our failure we'll hold ourselves to account.
Do they understand their role in this kind of situation?
Yes. But they were just one component of a much larger operation.
Why was it such a disaster?
There's no short answer, but if you put responsibility on one unit or one person in the whole organising team .
As head of public safety for Johannesburg doesn't the buck stop with you?
The buck also stops with the minister of police.

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