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Jonathan Brady
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Fire Services in SA: A state of Emergency

09 July 2014, 10:03


What is characterized as an essential service? Is it something without which a society would be crippled? Something which provides seamlessness and calm to the general systems which make a society liveable and safe? Take the recent spate of strikes declared by NUMSA during this past week, for example. In an attempt to restore some sense of normality, government sought an interdict against the union for seeking to strike at Eskom’s Madupi power plant. Citing the supply of electricity as an essential service, the strike at Madupi was cancelled, leaving many to question the validity of the strike by affected workers. You may think, Yes - even if we’re bombarded with load shedding on an almost daily basis, electricity is the very life blood of our modern economy.  However what about the people who work tirelessly to make certain that such an essential service is indeed delivered?

Fire emergency and rescue services are another irreplaceable asset which help a society run well in the face of horrific accidents and unforeseen incidents. Casual observation will associate fire emergency services with dealing simply with fires, but this is not the case. Emergencies on our roads, in homes, businesses and other sectors of our community all fall under the jurisdiction of these emergency response units. So when it comes to light that municipal units and their aligned training centres are ill equipped and managed, leading to incompetence in dealing with emergency situations, emergency responses of a different kind are called for.

 Recent reports emanating from Gauteng have uncovered inadequacies relating to equipment, leaving cause for concern among many. It was reported that a recent incident in Johannesburg caused 18 fire fighters to be hospitalized after entering into a 30 storey building without properly  functioning equipment. Many fire fighters in municipalities are described as despondent and experiencing low morale as neglect of their wellbeing occasioned by the lack of appropriate response to complaints about equipment[1]. Some have described the behaviour and lack of response by senior officials as characteristic of nepotism and self-aggrandizement which has become typical of the South African scenario in recent years. Even where newly purchased equipment has been in the possession of municipalities, its treatment has been indicative of inexperience and lack of respect for an essential resource[2].

It will come as no surprise to many that some of the symptoms described above have also emerged at training schools in the country.  One of eThekwini’s partner schools has come under fire from its students, regarding the lack of adequate and properly functioning training equipment for practical assessments.  When instructors and students complain and request the correct and properly functioning equipment to do their training they are disregarded, and in the case of students, are subjected to intense physical punishment; the latter in support of the notion that any perceived questioning of authority is indicative of insubordination and is to be stamped out immediately.  This reporter has learned that one unfortunate student was made to do physical exercise until he threw up in front of his class mates, because he had dared to complain.

No complete and fully functioning fire retardant suits, which the students need for practical assessments, are to be found at the campus.  Nor is there is any functioning breathing apparatus.  Students have almost completed the first stage of their fire fighting course and have yet to be trained to put out a fire. The worrying thing is that students are required to perform adequately in practical examinations.  How can they do this if they have no equipment and consequently have not been taught the practical applications of their course?  In the time that students have been enrolled at the campus, very few practical exercises have been conducted, leaving even instructors at a loss as to what to do with their students in the course of a day.   The result – poorly trained students, who will no doubt be issued with a certificate saying that they have successfully completed their course.  However, this will not be true – will it?

This state of affairs needs to be remedied as a matter of urgency to ensure that properly trained fire fighters are released into the community to do the work that they have chosen to do.  This is only right and moral, for the fire fighters and the communities that they will serve.  Whether governments and concerned stakeholders can band together to rectify the situation, not just for their own image, but for the well-being of the fire fighters and the collective society and systems in general, remains to be seen.



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