Fire department shows its mettle in face of danger

There is a close bond that exists between the BCM fire brigade team.
There is a close bond that exists between the BCM fire brigade team.
Image: SUPPLIED

After fires rampages through the city in the depth of lockdown, Cristin Flynn visited the Buffalo city fire and rescue department to find out about the challenges they face and how they are managing to work despite them. This is what she learned.

On August 3, there were 70 fires that Buffalo City Fire and Rescue had to attend to – all in one extremely dramatic day.

To give context, in the entire month of April there were only 71 calls – just over two fires a day. The average for the 2019-2020 period is less than 200 a month.

Columnist Cristin Flynn
Columnist Cristin Flynn

According to BCM spokesperson Samkelo Ngwenya, a day like August the 3rd is an anomaly. These kinds of days are few and far between. According to his statistics, there will only be one day like this in an 18-24 month period.

Emergency Services General Manager Steven Terwin added that the public needs to understand that for average months or even for months such as June where we saw 528 fires in our district, the fire department is more than adequately capable of delivering despite huge constraints in their budget and capacity.

However, for a disaster such as the events that transpired on August 3 – where there were four houses burning in Beacon Bay, two in Buffalo Flats, three in Cozy Corner and several fires burning in different bush areas including some that were rapidly encroaching on residential areas in Dorchester Heights – there simply is no fire department in the country that could respond to all of those calls simultaneously.

Terwin explains that there are days like this where, even in developed nations such as Australia or the States, there are fires that simply are beyond the capacity of the departments to handle because they are beyond the norm. This is a crisis situation where no municipality or government is equipped to respond immediately to it being so  radically disproportionate to the norms.

Terwin makes reference to the Australian fires of 2019 and explains that a disaster of this proportion could not be planned for. Not even with excellent reservists, volunteers, or near-perfect protocols are disaster services fully able to deal with such extremes.

We simply do the very best we can to preserve as much life and property and review the results afterward and see if we could improve next time

For some disasters, Terwin, a 43-year-long public servant who is due to retire shortly, explains: “We simply do the very best we can to preserve as much life and property and review the results afterward and see if we could improve next time.”

Ngwenya reiterated, what many people don't understand is that the fire brigade was initially commissioned to only cater for urban areas before 1994, and it is now  servicing all 2,500 square kilometres in the BCM district. This is a huge difference to the original scope of work, and so the workload is massively impacted as a result.

At the time of the 2011 Census, BCM had a population of 755,200 residents, and this number has grown at an average of 1.01% annually, according to a 2017 report compiled by the Eastern Cape Socio Economic Consultative Council. According to this growth rate, the population of BCM is currently sitting at about 900,000 residents, although many suspect we are already over the 1 million mark.

Bearing these population statistics in mind, it is important to note that the number of firefighters employed by our metro is less than it was in 2010 when there were 139 operational firefighters, including officers and some volunteers, yet the population has not stopped growing. The department currently employs 134 firefighters, including officers, to serve its seven stations, and there is no longer a volunteer division.

Senior fire fighter Xavier Pillay, Chief Fire Officer Thembile Thompson, General Manager emergency services Steve Terwin, and Station Commander Chris Smith make a formidable team.
Senior fire fighter Xavier Pillay, Chief Fire Officer Thembile Thompson, General Manager emergency services Steve Terwin, and Station Commander Chris Smith make a formidable team.
Image: SUPPLIED

When interviewed, firefighters who have been serving for over a decade, note how much harder they are expected to work to keep up with the ever-increasing load as a result of this population growth, not to mention industrial expansion, more formal housing and infrastructure and dealing with veld and agricultural fires that were previously not part of their scope.

The budget allocated to the fire and rescue services has proportionately not increased at a rate that caters to the ever-growing metro’s needs.

A fireman who started working for the department in the 1990s who wished to remain unnamed said that working as a fireman reminds him of his youth when he was a waiter at his uncle’s restaurant. During the festive season, he was expected to serve more and more tables all at once and everyone demanded excellent service. He jokes about learning to work faster to keep everyone happy, but says that there were some days that he simply could not keep up despite his best efforts and finds that this is the case at work in recent years too.

Terwin pointed out that according to the South African National Bureau of Standards there are prescribed standards and that they are falling short of in terms of the number of operational members and equipment needed to cater to such a large area. The standards are considered best practice. However, government does not see them as mandatory, and therefore expect the men on the ground to pick up the slack.

The Fleet Street fire station.
The Fleet Street fire station.
Image: SUPPLIED

During our current state of disaster, many of these public servants were separated from their families. Several ended up at home with Coovid-19 at various times, and they certainly felt the pressure – yet they never failed to step up to the proverbial plate to serve.

According to Ngwenya, there are no bravery awards for these men and women. No special mentions, ever. And they are inundated with abuse and negative publicity with very little thanks.

Social media is a bittersweet medium. At times it is used as a platform to encourage and praise, but it is also used to spread false and partial information, often based on assumption. The public does not understand that the call centre, for example, with ten incoming lines, works in a manner that the lines will continue to ring, while the attendants are busy with other calls. This is so there are usually no engaged lines when a member of the public tries to call for assistance.

According to Terwin, there has never been an incident where the call centre was “sleeping” or not attending to calls, despite people getting this impression due to the lines sometimes ringing non-stop. Often, for one fire, 30 or more members of the public call simultaneously to report the same incident. This is an area that the department would like to streamline going forward to avoid frustration.

There is a deep bond and team spirit that drives the Buffalo City Fire and Rescue team that has led to their successes.
There is a deep bond and team spirit that drives the Buffalo City Fire and Rescue team that has led to their successes.
Image: SUPPLIED

It was interesting and noteworthy to hear that BCM is considered to be one of the top-performing departments in the country, according to a report written by the Fire Prevention Association of South Africa. BCM has done excellent work in educating the community through their school programs and leaflet distribution, and they have found that through getting the community involved there is a quantifiable reduction in fires that have to be dealt with later.

Terwin reminds us that prevention is by far the best strategy. Gutters and garden waste need to be cleaned and removed regularly to prevent residential fires from spreading. Early detection devices such as smoke alarms save lives and are efficient. Sprinkler systems can prevent devastation. Also, remember to unplug electrical appliances before you leave the house and ensure that not too many appliances are plugged into a single socket. Never leave open fires unattended under any circumstance; including gas, of course.

These are such simple things, and yet every day there are people who are dying unnecessarily due to entirely avoidable emergency situations.

Senior fire fighter, Julliano Medina, focused on the job.
Senior fire fighter, Julliano Medina, focused on the job.
Image: SUPPLIED

BCM emergency services is in the process of filling vacant posts. The extra manpower will go a long way in bringing relief to current staff and will assist the department in providing more efficient service.

There is also a new procurement of a tanker and fire engines and fire and rescue services are waiting for the delivery of nine bush tenders, which are expected to arrive from Toyota soon.

Next time you see a member of the emergency services around your neighbourhood remember that they are doing their best and working under difficult circumstances. Mosts are there because they want to make a difference. Give them a little thank you, smile, pop them a word of encouragement on social media, or send an e-mail of thanks or feedback to the Chief Fire Officer, thembilet@buffalocity.gov.za.

Together we can do better.

Cristin Flynn is an avid adventurer, freelance journalist and is passionate about telling stories that inspire.


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