Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
4 minute read
19 Jul 2021
4:29 pm

Inside Charlotte Maxeke Hospital’s glaring fire safety plan failures

Nica Richards

The last fire safety audit at Charlotte Maxeke hospital was on 31 October 2017, and fire escapes were locked 'due to security concerns'.

Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital collapsed following after fire that began on Friday, 20 April 2021. Picture: Nigel Sibanda/The Citizen

The partial reopening of Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital at the end of June provided little consolation for the country’s buckling healthcare system, and the dismal fire safety plans don’t foster much faith in government’s ability to ensure the hospital doesn’t go up in flames again in the near future. 

After a fire ravaged the hospital on 16 April, disturbing information has emerged from Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow MEC for Health, Jack Bloom, regarding the glaring safety gaps at the hospital after an exchange with Gauteng Health MEC Nomathemba Mokgethi, which The Citizen has seen. 

ALSO READ: Apartheid to blame for missing Charlotte Maxeke hospital plans

In a statement issued on Monday, Bloom demanded accountability for what he deemed a failure, in terms of keeping the hospital’s fire safety up to date. 

The blame game should start with hospital CEO Gladys Bogoshi, he continued, saying she “should face disciplinary charges along with officials from the Department of Infrastructure who did not ensure that the hospital was compliant with occupational safety standards.” 

He said the fire, which may have been prevented if the hospital’s safety protocols were up to date, has resulted in ICU beds not being able to be used to treat Covid-19 patients, among other concerns. 

In the middle of a third wave of infections, Bloom said he was concerned this would put “intolerable strain on public hospitals”, and that patients now had to rely on the private sector “to speed up the safe use of specialist beds at the hospital to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of sick patients.” 

Faulty fire safety equipment 

Mokgethi and Bloom’s exchange through the Gauteng Legislature confirmed the last time a fire safety audit was conducted at the hospital was on 31 October 2017, by Bigen Africa, some four years before the 16 April blaze. 

ALSO READ: Charlotte Maxeke Hospital: Cancer patients dealt another blow

Mokgethi said “most” firefighting equipment within sampled areas are within their maintenance period, but that smoke detectors are not working. In the same breath, however, Mokgethi said in her responses to Bloom there was not enough firefighting equipment in high fire risk areas.

In addition, fire suppression systems in substations are not working, “as not all parts necessary to operate the system could be located”. 

The extent of the problem cannot even be quantified, with Mokgethi saying a qualified fire inspector is needed “to determine the extent of problem (sic)”.

Still no building plans? 

When asked by Bloom why Charlotte Maxeke had no building plans, despite this being required by law, Mokgethi said the hospital does have plans, but that the previous government administration was not required to submit the drawing plans for approval to municipalities taking over. 

“All the government buildings done before 1995 they were not required to submit drawings for approval to the municipalities by law.”

ALSO READ: Concerns over cancer patient treatment after Charlotte Maxeke fire

In a media briefing in June, acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said “during the apartheid times, some of the buildings were declared buildings that were under the national key point so they did not have plans”.

Escape routes locked

When Bloom asked whether the hospital had fire evacuation routes, as is required, Mokgethi said the hospital did have fire escape routes, but that these were locked “due to security concerns”. 

Importantly, fire safety doors were not assessed in the hospital’s 2017 audit, Mokgethi added. 

The hospital’s fire doors have to be replaced due to the fire, which Mokgethi explained was due to changes within industry standards. 

Three of the hospital’s 147 fire hydrants were reported missing in March 2021. 

Last audit ‘not comprehensive’ 

Bloom asked why the hospital, knowing the fire safety deficiencies, did not identify the shortcomings before the fire on 16 April, Mokgethi responded that the last assessment “was not comprehensive”. 

ALSO READ: Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital fire extinguished

She explained the previous assessment failed to identify any deficiencies later highlighted by the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Infrastructure Development’s appointed fire engineer, such as a fire rational plan and fire doors. 

However, this does not explain why the glaring fire safety concerns were not picked up on by any government departments until a fire tore through the hospital. 

One cluster of patients who suffered particularly harsh circumstances after the fire were cancer patients, with the ward only reopening on 28 June – more than two months after the blaze.