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Only one fire engine for city

By Kailene Pillay

Just one working fire engine.

Just one working fire engine.

That is all Pietermaritzburg has at its disposal right now to fight fires in the extensive area Msunduzi Fire Department serves.

The Witness can reveal that this is the alarming reality of the city’s fire services, despite the municipality denying claims that the fire services were in dire straits.

The situation came to light this week when firefighters said the department was forced to fill up buckets of water to put out a house fire in Caluza.

The two-bedroom house caught alight and one of the bedrooms was completely gutted after firefighters ran out of water.

Numerous despondent firefighters, who asked not to be named, told The Witness that the lack of resources had crippled the city’s fire department.

A firefighter said the fire engine ran out of water and when they called for a back-up water truck they were told to “make a plan”.

“We had to resort to filling buckets up from communal taps nearby and running up the driveway with them,” said the firefighter.

Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha confirmed that firefighters used buckets to fight the fire, but said it was because the fire engine had difficulty gaining access to the fire. She said the buckets were only used until the fire engine found an alternate route to the house.

Firefighters said this incident was only the tip of the iceberg.

They admitted they were “fed up” of being called incompetent “when it is actually the council who is responsible”.

They said they also only have one set of the Jaws of Life to extricate people trapped in crashed vehicles.

A firefighter said that should a major fire occur here, the city’s firefighting department would not able to attend “with our full capacity”.

He said with the lack of resources and only one fire engine servicing the community, help from the district would be needed.

“The problem though is the turn-around time. For an engine to be called in from somewhere else leaves too many risks,” he said.

The firefighter said the current fire engine being used also does not have space to carry the crew members.

“The crew has to travel in a van and follow the fire engine. So instead of changing into our gear on the fire engine while commuting, we have to jump from the van into the fire engine at the scene and start changing. This loses precious life-saving time and creates more delays,” he said.

He added that with no back-up water tanker, they are left unequipped to tackle major fires.

There are three fire stations in Pietermaritzburg and each one should have a fully operational fire engine, but the only working fire truck is stationed in Edendale.

“If there was a fire in Northdale, it could take us up to an hour to drive through peak traffic to get to Regina Road for instance,” said one of the frustrated firefighters.

The other fire engines are, according to firefighters, parked off at the stations awaiting spare parts.

Some fire engines are awaiting new brakes, new fan belts, sirens, hooters, warning lights and one is awaiting an engine head.

“We wait months and months for spare parts and it has been about two years since we started the engines on two of the trucks,” a firefighter said.

He said mechanics have resorted to using discarded and outdated vehicles for spare parts.

In one incident recently, firefighters used the flammable propellant in a can of insect repellent spray as a starting fluid to turn the engine on one of the trucks.

In a video shared with The Witness, a firefighter is seen spraying Doom into the carburettor. After a few seconds of spraying while another firefighter turns the ignition, the truck engine turns and idles.

The Witness is in possession of the video but cannot publish it to protect the identity of the municipal employees.

Another firefighter told The Witness that brakes on the fire engine based at the Oribi fire station allegedly failed recently and it crashed into a minibus taxi.

“It is absolutely horrid the way emergency services are treated by the municipality.

“We don’t only risk our jobs by calling for help from the media or voicing our opinions in meetings, but we are risking our lives by using faulty equipment,” said an angry firefighter.

The district fire fighting services are also facing trouble after one of their fire engines was involved in an accident in the early hours of Friday morning.

Firefighters, who also asked not to be named, said the accident was caused by New Hanover firefighters “who went on a joyride” in Shiyabazali in New Hanover.

It is believed some of the firefighters working the night shift on Friday took the fire engine without authorisation and crashed it into a fence.

“The problem is that there is no discipline in the fire stations. Some [staff] are unqualified and have their own way with the municipal property,” said a firefighter who did not want to be named.

uMgungundlovu District Municipality spokesperson Mbali Ndlovu confirmed the incident.

She said a specialised Land Cruiser fire-bakkie was involved in the accident, but that damage was minimal.

A resident’s fence was damaged. Ndlovu said the Ashburton fire station commander, who lives nearby, went to the accident scene to investigate.

She said the council vehicle was slightly damaged and firefighters abandoned the fire-bakkie and fled.

She said the preliminary investigation had revealed there was unauthorised usage of the council vehicle, and the incident had not been reported internally or to external authorities. She said the district has since opened a case of unauthorised usage of council vehicle and absconding from the accident scene at the New Hanover police station. “Currently two investigations are being conducted concurrently. An internal investigation and a criminal investigation conducted by SAPS,” she said.

Ndlovu said the district management strongly condemned “such gross misconduct” and will discipline the staff members involved.