Damning report lifts lid on severely understaffed eThekwini firefighting department
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Durban - THE city’s firefighting unit is experiencing a shortage of staff, raising fears the unit could be ill-prepared to deal with disasters and emergencies similar to the violent uprising that shocked KwaZulu-Natal in July.
The overtime situation in the city’s firefighting unit is so bad unit firefighters are forced to continuously work overtime to avoid the closure of some of its fire stations.
A report tabled before members of the executive committee (exco) this week revealed the unit had almost half of the staff complement needed to function optimally.
It also revealed the fire and emergency unit needed close to R30 million in additional funds for overtime pay.
The report was, however, withdrawn from exco without discussion and returned to committees. No reason was given why it had been referred back to them.
It laid bare the crisis facing the unit, revealing it has a budget of R15.1m and requires an additional R29.5m for the 2021-22 financial year. In the last financial year, the report showed the unit had budgeted R13.7m and eventually spent R43m in overtime pay.
Overtime pay is a thorny issue in the municipality and has been flagged as a runaway train. The audit committee has warned several times that the city needs to manage overtime expenditure better.
The report motivated for the overtime pay, saying the fire and emergency services unit was charged with the responsibility of saving lives, property and rendering humanitarian services.
It described the service as labour-intensive and that operating conditions were always challenging and dangerous, with the potential for injuries and death for both employees and the community.
Speaking on the staffing, it said the national standards recommends specific staffing levels per firefighting vehicle for specific risk categories.
“The unit is not adequately staffed to maintain normal and safe working conditions and continuous overtime is worked to maintain the required minimum staff levels 24/7/365 at all 22 operational fire stations, to avoid closing some of these stations.
“The unit has identified the required level in the constitutional review report yet to be consulted with staff and labour. A total of 827 operational firefighters is required, the current complement is 457 and will increase to 553, with the 96 pending recruitments finalisation as soon as procurement of uniform and PPE is achieved,” said the report.
One of the potential recruits said he was still waiting to be told what happened with the process, adding that they had been taken through all the processes of recruitment, including physical fitness interview and medical checks.
“In one of the last stages of the recruitment process in December 2019, we were told to bring our qualifications and we thought that we were going to be hired, by January, February there was no communication from the municipality as to what was happening and after Covid they just went silent. We wish they could alert us so we do not keep hoping for something that is no longer coming,” said the recruit.
The report detailed numerous other challenges that contribute to the need for overtime work.
It said since the outbreak of Covid 19, staff attendance had been affected due to infections, further compromising the staffing levels and necessitating working overtime.
The moratorium on the filling of posts had also forced the unit to work overtime. “Whilst these conditions are a reality, the unit has always done its best to manage overtime spend.”
The report also spoke of the need to keep the fire fighting unit in top condition, saying a highly professional fire service was necessary in order to achieve a socially equitable environment where lives, property and the economic base was protected
Opposition party councillors told The Mercury they understood the need for this unit to work overtime but felt this need could be addressed by filling vacant posts.
IFP councillor Mdu Nkosi said it was concerning that the unit was demanding overtime, in summer when it’s hot and the risk for fires is less. “I had questions about that report but unfortunately, it was withdrawn and taken back to committees. It would be understandable if the overtime they were referring to is the overtime that has already been worked, we know that they do work overtime. This need for overtime is concerning,” said Nkosi.
DA councillor Thabani Mthethwa said they understood that firefighters were an essential service to the municipality and, therefore, there would be a need for overtime.
“The report shows that they are nowhere near the staff complement that the unit needs. If the municipality took the steps to fill these vacancies, there would be no need for overtime pay,” he said.
Municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said there were processes to fill vacancies. “We are currently in the process of addressing the staff shortages in the department. Approximately 30 new firefighters were recruited and appointed in the first phase of the Firefighters Programme. The second phase was to consider experienced firefighters but this process was not complete due to operational issues. This process will resume once finalised,” he said.