We’re sitting on a ticking time bomb

2009-06-19 00:00

RECENTLY, Howick came to the assistance of Msunduzi when fighting the tragic fire in the old Colonial Building. This would seem to indicate that Howic­k has somehow turned the corner since the disastrous fire season of 2007, when the municipality’s firefighting capabilities bordered on the tragic. The firestorm of June 25 and June 26, 2007 that raged through the KwaZulu-Natal midlands from Fort Nottingham to Hilton, encircling Howick and showering houses and retirement villages with burning embers, demonstrated the lack of preparedness on the part of the uMngeni and Umgung­undlovu municipalities.

What has changed in the two years since this disaster? Have the fire hydrants that were found to be non-functional in 2007 been repaired? Have all the other hydr­ants been clearly marked and serviced? How well prepared are we for the 2009 fire season?

The Umgungundlovu District Municipality provides its municipalities [excluding Msunduzi] with a firefighting and disaster management service. The uMngeni Municipality consists of approximately 85 000 residents and encompasses an area of 1567 km 2 from Nottingham Road to Hilton and Impendle to Umshwati.

The extent of the fire services required by uMngeni is enormous — there are about 22 000 households, vast informal settlements (one of which is made solely of wood), industries which include BTR Sarmcol, various sawmills and pallet-making factories, the biodiesel and fuel replacement industries, and all of the businesses, shops and petrol stations in the municipality. Last, but by no means least, are the N3 duties, which involv­e firefighting, the rescue of passengers trapped in vehicles and dealing with hazardous chemical cleanups from Rosetta to the Msunduzi border near the Town Hill arrester bed.

To provide these services, which are required on a 24/7 basi­s, there is one fire engine, one set of the “jaws of life” and a total of 20 personnel. The fire-fighters are not provided with the necessary equipment and clothing to deal with hazardous chemical spills and their lives are being needlessly endangered. If the situation were not so serious and life-threatening, this tally would be laughable.

When the fire engine went down to Pietermaritzburg to help with the Colonial Building inferno, the entire uMngeni municipal area, including the N3, was left without firefighting services of any description. If the fire engine is called out to handle an accident, fire or spillage on the N3, the rest of the municipality is left totally unprotected, usually for a lengthy period as the back-up of trucks prevents the fire engine leaving the scene. The accidents that occur on the R103 caused by heavy vehicles avoiding the tolls are legendary and usually particularly gruesome. If a fire occurs in the municipality while the fire engine is dealing with an accident on the N3 or R103, a backup will be called in from Ashburton, resulti­ng in lengthy delays.

There are two entities that should be providing the services that are required — the Umgungundlovu District Municipality and N3TC (N3 Toll Concessionaire).

The N3 is the second busiest highway in the entire country, afte­r the Ben Schoeman highway, with thousands of “heavies” passing through the municipality each day. According to the KZN White Paper on Freight Transport Policy, 21 million tons of freight moved through the Mooi River toll plaza in 2003, or almost 60 000 tons a day. Accidents involving trucks and closures of the N3 are commonplace. Seeing that motorists and truckers are paying to travel on the N3, N3TC has a responsibility to ensure that accidents, fires and spillages are efficiently and safely dealt with.

The safety of the residents of the municipalities bordering the N3 should not be compromised as it is now. It is imperative that the district municipality treat the situation with the seriousness that it deserves.

Nothing has improved since the fires of 2007. We are sitting on a time bomb that is already ticking.

• Pam Passmoor is a DA caucus leader in the uMngeni Municipality.

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