Visit to the eTthekwini Fire Brigade

By Allan Jackson ------ 2007
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***This article first appeared in our ratepayers' magazine Metrobeat.


Fighting a fire at Mahomedy's Store in Berea Road. The date of the incident is so far unknown.

<= Click to view enlargement.

Picture courtesy eThekwini Fire Brigade.


We eThekwenians, if there is such a word, must really be a lot of fire bugs because our fire brigade is the busiest in the country.

To be serious for a moment, I spoke to Fire Chief Mark Te Water during a recent visit to the central fire station in Centenary Road, and he explained that we live in an area with a relatively high concentration of risk, leading to the high number of brigade call outs.

The metropolitan area encompasses the port, two airports, oil refineries, a large industrial sector, a large rural area with plenty of potential for grass fires , and an extensive network of roads which carry heavy local traffic and that moving between the port and the Witwatersrand.

With this much activity it is inevitable that things will go wrong such as the odd explosion, dangerous chemical spills, fires that start and need to be put out, vehicles that crash and whose occupants need to be cut free from the tangled wreckage. Then you get people who fall down cliffs and need to be rescued and cats and small boys who get stuck in trees.

The most recent comparative figures come from 2005, when the eThekwini Fire Brigade was called out a total of 8672 times, the Cape Town brigade 4794 times, the Tshwane brigade 4794 times and the Johannesburg brigade only 2054 times.

According to Chief Te Water, predicting when calls will come can be difficult and so the brigade trains to respond instantly when one does. Calls are received at the emergency communications centre in Jelf Taylor Road where operators type the details into a computer and assign the call to one of the 19 fire stations in the metro area.

The first thing the fire fighters on duty hear is a bell which means that they have to drop everything and pick up a computer print-out with details of the incident, including the address, on the way to their vehicles. During the day, vehicles must be mobile within 30 seconds of the receipt of the call but, at night, they have a whole minute to get moving.

Once mobile, the officer in charge will confirm receipt of the message by radio and, very importantly, that he has the correct destination on his print-out. On arrival at the scene, the officer will assess the situation and notify control whether he will need extra personnel or equipment to assist with the incident.

If the situation is serious, the controllers will dispatch more personnel and units to the scene until the officer in the officer in charge sends a stop message saying, in effect, that everything is under control. The officer will be conscious that resources he's using may be needed elsewhere at any moment, so he will try and release vehicles and personnel from at the scene as soon as they are no longer needed.

The fire brigade has 19 fire stations, as I've already said, and a fleet of some 200 vehicles including 30 fire engines, or rescue pumps, as I've now found out they should be called. There are also seven water carriers, four aerial platforms, a foam tender, two breathing apparatus tenders, a salvage and lighting unit, a chemical incident unit, a rescue tender and an incident command unit.

The most impressive vehicle I saw on my visit to the fire station was a mighty Freightliner water tanker which can carry 32000 litres of water; that's 32 tons by the way. It also carries two portable dams and can dump its load into them, through quick-release valves, to be used by other brigade units, while it goes to pick up more water.

I must admit to being surprised to hear that we only have around 455 fire fighters to cope with the number of callouts received. Chief Te Water estimates that the brigade is about 30% undermanned, or whatever the correct word is, now that the brigade has 30 women fire fighters on strength.

The shortage of personnel has made some adjustments necessary, including the reduction in the crewing of some fire stations and a reduction in the number of crew on each vehicle. The major fire stations have rescue pumps stationed there permanently but stations in low-risk areas may only have water carriers, equipped with small mobile pumps, to cope with minor incidents.

It costs something like R25000 to kit out a fire fighter with a helmet and visor, flash hood, tunic, puncture-resistant gloves, boots which are heat-resistant and protect the foot from sharp objects, and four-layer bunker trousers. The total amount doesn't include the breathing apparatus which the fire fighter will need to be able to work in smoky environments.

Recruits are given a three-month intensive course in fire-fighting techniques and a three-week course in emergency medical care, before they can go on duty. Advances in fire fighting and rescue technique and equipment means that there is a lot for recruits to learn; far more in Chief Te Water's estimation, than in his own day.

An eThekwini fire fighter works a 42-hour week in four shifts, two days and two nights, and then has four days off. It's a strenuous life, including regular session in gym, but the brigade has no trouble attracting recruits with hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for each available place.

Durban has had organised fire fighting units since 1870, when William Palmer, a banker and agent for the Royal Insurance Company in Natal, donated a fire engine to the town on condition that it gave priority to the buildings insured by his company. Members of the Durban Volunteer Artillery Corps manned the machine at first and, in 1877, fire hydrants were erected at points around town.

Later, the Borough Police (now Metro Police) were given responsibility for fire fighting in the town. A volunteer unit was formed by a group of railway employees and another by a group of harbour employees.
Mr Morgan, formerly of the Johannesburg Fire Brigade, was appointed Captain of the Corporation's brigade in 1898. On strength at the time was one regular fireman and 10 police firemen who were stationed at the main police station in Pine Street.

TW Lambeth succeeded Morgan as Firemaster in 1902 and work began that year on a Fire Station in Pine Street, which cost £14438, and was described as 'the most imposing on the sub-continent'. The corporation's brigade absorbed the others in 1902 and, by 1904, Durban had 26 full-time firemen, 20 auxiliaries, and a recruit on probation was earning £11 per month.

In 1908, on 22nd June, there was an awful tragedy when a rescue demonstration, put on at Lords Ground to raise money for an ambulance for the town, went horribly wrong when the fire engine didn't arrive in time.
Three young boys, who included Lambeth's two sons and that of his deputy William Scott, were to be rescued from a burning structure during the demonstration, but died in the fire, along with volunteer fire fighter David Williams.

The public chipped in with donations and the ambulance was acquired and stationed at the fire station, where it was available, free of charge, to pick up accident victims or people taken ill in the streets. The first petrol-driven fire engine was delivered to the brigade in 1911 although horse-drawn ones served until 1919.

An early fire engine outside the fire station in Point Road. The date is unknown but it would be after 1911, when the first petrol fire engine was delivered to the department.

<= Click to view enlargement.

Picture courtesy eThekwini Fire Brigade.

In the early days of fire fighting in Durban, the firemen worked a continuous shift of nine days with one day off. It was noted, even though there were married quarters attached to the fire station, that family life did not flourish and, thankfully, the system of alternating day and night shifts was introduced in 1930.

The brigade is, of course, largely occupied with actual fire fighting and rescue, but they are also involved in fire safety through the enforcement of fire regulations, conducting investigations into the causes of fires and consulting with architects and the building industry on safer buildings.

Fire education is a cause close to Chief Te Water's heart and he believes that educating people on fire prevention can help reduce the burden on the brigade. The simple fact is that fire can only happen where there is an ignition source and fuel to burn; keep the two separate, and there can be no fire.

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