Picture Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)
Picture Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Firefighter heroes face the chop

By Bulelwa Payi Time of article published Apr 25, 2021

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WHEN the alarm signalled the devastating blaze on Table Mountain, firefighters who are in a protracted battle with the City and face possible dismal were ready to serve.

One firefighter, who cannot be named for fear of reprisal, said he was among the first crew to arrive on the scene to try to contain the spread of the wildfire.

More than 500 firefighters in the Western Cape could face dismissal after disciplinary procedures were instituted earlier this month, two years after a dispute over working hours.

“At one point I thought we stood little chance of doing so, but we gave it our all. The wind was against us and the blaze was high up in the mountain – and that’s often difficult to handle,” he said.

The man has been a firefighter for more than 30 years and when he received the call, he was off-duty.

“We worked throughout the night on that day and only left at the crack of dawn when others came to relieve us.

“In other incidents we would work for up to 24 hours, depending on the circumstances and the availability of personnel,” he said.

The firefighters – regarded as frontline and essential workers – have earned the support and admiration of Cape Town residents and businesses who generously donated food and water.

Many, including children from schools across the city, wrote letters and drew pictures of encouragement for the heroes who battled the blaze and which adorned the walls of the fire station in Roeland Street.

Another firefighter, who wants to remain anonymous due to a disciplinary process for demanding to “be paid appropriately for over-time”, said he jumped at the opportunity to fight the fire.

“We are currently facing challenges with regards to working conditions and this has impacted on our well-being. But I would not trade my job for anything.

“I had an opportunity to relocate to another country. But I turned it down, I love what I do,” he said.

During the fire, he returned twice to the scene on different shifts and remained on standby to monitor any possible flare-ups.

“Despite the work challenges as firefighters we remain resolute to do the best we can. We are here to save lives and I would go back any time,” he added.

Yesterday Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy was taken on a helicopter tour of Table Mountain National Park to assess the damage. “When you are up there you realise the seriousness; the damage looked like the surface of the moon.”

She said two separate investigations have been launched into the UCT and the Table Mountain fires which 1 000 brave firefighters and four Huey helicopter crews fought for more than 60 hours, delivering 433 water drops on to the blaze.

However, as the pall of smoke hung over the city most of the firefighters were facing possible dismissal over a demand for a new agreement that would see them being paid for overtime in line with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

According to South African Municipal Workers Union officials in 2019, union members, after receiving legal advice, decided to work eight hours a day instead of a 24-hour shift.

A firefighter said they could work up to 240 hours a month, 80 hours beyond what was prescribed in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

“The dispute now is around the remuneration of the extra 80 hours we work. While we get the 22.8% allowance when it is implemented it falls far shorter than if it was calculated using the act,” he said.

Samwu regional secretary Mikel Kumalo said despite attempts to engage management to enter into negotiations on a new agreement through collective bargaining, the efforts had failed.

He said the current agreement benefited management as they also were covered by the 22.8% allowance even though they did not have to fight fires.

Previously, the City confirmed that a disciplinary process was under way but it was an internal matter.

“The current shift agreement, to which Samwu are a signatory, has been declared valid and binding in terms of a Labour Court judgment and remains in force until a new agreement is negotiated between the parties,“City spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo said.

Meanwhile as mop-up operations continue, an aviation expert said the fire could have been contained earlier if Oryx helicopters had been dispatched immediately.

The SANDF dispatched two Oryx helicopters on Tuesday to help put out the fire. However, managing director of Plane Talking Linden Birns said the SANDF’s budget cuts over the years were to blame for “big gaps” in the airforce and navy.

“It’s outrageous that the airforce could not deploy until day three of the fire. Had they deployed the Oryx helicopters soon after the fire broke out, they could have made far more contribution in fighting the fire,” said Linden.

He said the airforce did not have a shortage of helicopters but the problem lay in their availability as well as the availability of trained crew.

“In my estimation there are 10 helicopters available at the Ysterplaat squadron.

“The budget cuts have affected the operations of the available equipment and its maintenance – sometimes it affects the availability of fuel. So what’s the use of having these helicopters if you can’t fly them”, Linden said.

He also said taxpayers were now forced to foot the bill of a commercial contract signed with a private company to provide the “same services as the airforce”.

Instead, he said “we have a defence force that’s not given enough money to do its job”.

He said authorities had been warned several times of the potential risks.

“It has become politically unpopular to spend money on defence yet it’s about securing the country and the economy,” said Linden.

A defence expert, Dr Helmoed Heitman, said the impact of the budget cuts was devastating.

He said in its current state, the SANDF was “too weak to meet its mandate” as a result of the budgetary cuts.

Heitman said there was an urgent need for the SANDF to re-examine its role in the region and how it could deal with existing challenges in the context of its budgetary constraints.

SANDF Spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi said he could not comment on “issues deemed to be of security risk” .

“We don’t share information on our assets. I can only confirm that our budget has been declining at least over the past five years”, he said.

WEEKEND ARGUS

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