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By Shanice Naidoo

Digital Journalist


WATCH: Smoke, devastation and prayer on the frontline with firefighters ‘saving a nation’

The Citizen got its safety boots on to experience what life is like on the frontline of disaster.


Every bit of courage is needed when firefighters risk their lives to save residents of burning buildings in the Joburg CBD, or when responding to similar tragedies.

The city has been hit by numerous fires at buildings or houses over the last few months and The Citizen got its safety boots on to experience what life is like on the frontline of such disasters.

“We are not here for the money, we are here for the people of South Africa. This is a calling from God, being a firefighter. We are saving a nation, it’s what we do,” said firefighter Doctor Nempumbuluni of Fairview firestation. He studied for four years in fire technology and has been serving as a firefighter for the past 11 years.

Doctor, like many other firefighters, says a prayer before his 12-hour shift where anything can happen. That 12 hours can turn to 18, with hours spent on the scene of a fire.

He and his colleagues spent last Friday battling a blaze at a hijacked building in the CBD. No injuries were reported but many of the approximately 1,000 people who lived there lost everything they owned, including their homes.

Phuahla Sipho Sebake, who has been a firefighter for 15 years, reported for duty at 6:50 am, ahead of a daily parade, followed by the allocation of duties and a quick breakfast. Not long after, disaster struck.

READ ALSO: WATCH: South African firefighters touch the hearts of Canadians through song

Firefighters are almost always eating on the go.

“If the bell rings we have to leave everything and go. We have 60 seconds to get out of the fire station. When we get a call we can’t have emotions, we have to start planning for the call.”

“On the way we discuss the call and who is doing what. It is important that we prepare,” said Sebake.

Dozens of people stood on the other side of the emergency tape, watching firefighters tackle the blaze.

Sebake said one of the biggest challenges at the site of an emergency is crowd control, another is seeing those who have died.

The job comes with many dangers and traumas, and counselling to debrief is a must. This is especially true when firefighters lose one of their own.

“When we lose a colleague it’s very difficult. You start the day with them and then they are gone. It’s very emotional.”

He recalled his first true traumatic experience on the job, when he attended to a fire at an informal settlement where numerous people died. He said the air smelt like burnt meat. For him, a successful day is when there are no injuries or deaths.

READ ALSO: Born a firefighter, growing into a hero

A dream job

Female firefighter Makhosazana Majola said being a firefighter has always been a dream. She has been putting out fires for about eight years now.

“Although it was difficult in the beginning now it is not. The challenge is going to a scene and it looks like flats but then there are many shacks inside,” said Majola, describing a familiar sight when emergency services respond to an incident in the Joburg CBD, including last week’s blaze.

Despite the many challenges firefighters experience on a daily basis, they still maintain their composure because they always have to be emotionally ready for whatever comes their way.

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