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Johannesburg - A third of Joburg’s fire engines don’t work and the fire brigades are severely understaffed. Morale is so bad that some firefighters fake smoke inhalation to avoid being sent into buildings from which they fear they won’t emerge – because their equipment doesn’t function.
The poor state of equipment and staff shortages are also having an impact on emergency response times, as Joburg Emergency Management Services (JEMS) employees have to turn to other stations for back-up.
This is according to a number of JEMS employees, who spoke to The Star on the condition on anonymity.
Last Friday, 18 firefighters suffered smoke inhalation and other injuries in a blaze in Braamfontein.
One firefighter was in intensive care for a few days afterwards.
The fire spread to several floors of a 30-storey building and firefighters had to carry their equipment up many flights of stairs.
Employees blame the injuries on malfunctioning and old equipment as they found themselves running out of oxygen and breathing smoke through faulty inhalers.
On Monday, The Star visited the JEMS repair depot in Florida Park, Roodepoort, after hearing reports that so many fire engines were unserviceable and that Sandton and Northview fire stations were without a single fire truck on Sunday.
The team counted 22 out-of-action trucks. Many were missing wheels and engines, as they waited to be worked on.
JEMS spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said he did not know exactly how many fire engines the City of Joburg’s fire department owned, but estimated that, on average, there were two trucks at each of the city’s 29 stations.
This translates into a third of the city’s fire engines being out of action.
A critical-care worker said firefighters would rather fake smoke inhalation than go into a burning building where they may be injured because of equipment failures.
A firefighter who has been working for the JEMS for over 10 years claimed nepotism had led to a glut of inexperienced and incompetent managers, resulting in an inability to handle last Friday’s inferno.
When the fire broke out last Friday morning, there was no rapid intervention because of this.
“They did not even ventilate the building,” the firefighter said. “They are supposed to instruct firefighters on what to do. If they can’t do that, the firefighters get confused because no one is in charge.”
The source added that a few months ago, firefighters responding to a car accident on the Mandela Bridge battled to save a passenger because the Jaws of Life did not work.
The passenger was trapped in the car, and whenever they tried to switch on the hydraulic jaws to cut open the car to free the patient, the generator would cut out.
“We report these problems daily, but we are now tired. Our equipment is too old,” he said.
A colleague verified what the man had to say via e-mail.
Another firefighter, also with over 10 years in the JEMS, said the lack of fire engines and equipment maintenance was a major problem.
Mechanics were called out to the stations daily to fix lights not working, ladders jamming, flat tyres, engines that wouldn’t start and broken water pumps.
He blamed the problems on experienced firefighters being allowed to leave, poor management and bad equipment.
The man said he regularly worked with only two people on a fire engine, when regulations stipulated that the minimum crew should be six for safety reasons.
Mulaudzi said last Friday’s fire incident was being investigated.
“The operational standard procedure states clearly that when firefighters enter a burning building they need to have full protective clothing on with a breathing apparatus,” he explained.
Mulaudzi said JEMS recently hired about 60 firefighters to replace staff members who had resigned.
He denied there were 22 fire engines awaiting repairs and said each station had a functional truck with a water tanker and ladder.