A FIRE hose little bigger than one used in a garden is all Buffalo City’s Fleet Street Fire Station can muster should a multi-storey fire break out in the East London CBD.
This was one of the discoveries made this week in a Saturday Dispatch investigation into BCM’s decayed and sharply declining fire-fighting capacity at five East London fire stations.
The Dispatch drove unhindered into three of the forlorn stations, where gates stood open and vehicles and fire fighting kit were seen through buckled, broken bay doors.
Answering 30 questions yesterday, BCM officials said the fire stations were “in good working order”, “security is adequate” and that they had the capacity to fight a CBD fire.
But this was a far cry from both what was both observed and what was told to the Dispatch by staff who feared dismissal and witch hunts, but spoke out in the interests of public safety and their own.
Top of the ladder of disturbing sights was:
- A fire engine graveyard at the Greenfields Station, where 14 vehicles, many of them looking serviceable, are parked in a shambolic state of rusting decay with parts spilling onto the ground;
- Two brand-new R7.5-million Turkish-manufactured Volkan fire trucks with their 37m mechanical ladders and aerial platforms parked at Fleet Street.
They have not been used since 2010 because firefighters say they malfunction and are dangerous.
Only one ALP2 aerial platform truck, more than 20 years old, is available at Fleet Street “but its pump does not work”.
- Only a smart but small rescue vehicle, an MBSA Sprinter, will rush off from Fleet Street to a city or beach fire with its little 20mm high-pressure hose and tiny 750-litre water tank;
- A private company, said to be a security firm, has taken over the fire department’s radio channel, but the built-in and portable radios are broken and firemen use WhatsApp or their private cellphones to stay in contact with the main control room;
- Officially, six fire engines are broken and 16 are operational.
But firefighters dispute this, saying only four out of nine proper fire engines made up of 14-ton major pumpers and tankers are serviceable, and only three out of nine of the smaller bush fire response Land Rovers and Land Cruisers are working; and
- Eight out of 19 fire engine bay doors are working.
Following BCM mayor Zukiswa Ncitha’s claim in her State of the Metro address in Ginsberg on Wednesday that the quality of the R63-million-a-year fire fighting service was being “significantly” improved, especially with the mid-year completion of a R9-million fire station, fire fighters claim East London’s fire service was being allowed to crash and burn in favour of Bhisho.
Ncitha claimed a 37m aerial “appliance” (hydraulic ladder truck) would be stationed permanently in King William’s Town, but firemen say one of the Volkan’s fire fighter cages fell forward alarmingly by 45º and a picture shows the cage tilted on its side.
During one test the jack – critical for stabilising the ladder and truck – suddenly slipped, causing the vehicle to rock dangerously.
While BCM fire chiefs and senior city officials, speaking through city spokesman Keith Ngesi, said the seven big fire engines at Greenfields station are “redundant and awaiting disposal”, fire fighters say only four are redundant and the rest are awaiting repairs.
Meanwhile, fire fighters say that the nearest fire engine available to respond to a city centre or beachfront fire would be sent from Vincent, Buffalo Flats, King William’s Town or Dimbaza, where the fire engine is too long for the building and stands outside getting looted of its fittings.
Fire engine number 9, stationed at Vincent near Hemingways Mall, tells a story about the state of the service. Its big red light and other lights are broken. Its R500000 jaws of life bounce around in a side bay because they cannot be clipped to the vehicle, and a firefighter has welded two hasps on the back to replace the rope which held the back platform together.
Its tank is cracked and the fire engine loses about 1000 litres of its 4000 litres before it gets to the fire.
Its 100kg ladder must be lowered off the back of the fire engine because the mechanical arms that lift and swing the ladder over the side and present them at waist-height are, like most other fire engine ladders, broken.
Conditions at stations were shocking – grubby hot plates, tiny rotting kitchen cabinets, broken charred lights, and chairs with braai-grid backs, repaired by the firefighters themselves.
Fire fighting kits, jackets, pants, boots and helmets were broken and clearly rarely replaced, even after the indicator dye on the Nomax-treated fabric has been burned and turned brown to signal that the kit is legally no longer serviceable. Rats and thieves eat their food when they are out on call. Boots have holes in them.
The force responded to 2119 incidents from July to March, or 235 a month, and a total of 275 shack fires where illegal electricity connections explode like fireworks.
But: “The facilities for fire fighters are in good order, and as such comply with the Occupational Health & Safety Act,” said Ngesi.
Faced with pay cuts, shabby stations and dangerous, malfunctioning fire fighting equipment, it angers firefighters to see administrative clerks driving away at lunchtime in a brand new administration bakkie while they work with a re-sprayed sedan with 400000km on the clock, which “reeks of fuel” and has a steering which “shakes very badly”. — firstname.lastname@example.org