Cape Town fire fighters under siege
Attacks on Cape Town fire fighters are hampering their ability to respond to fires timeously. While the City of Cape Town boasts a well-resourced fire department, its workforce is under siege as communities continue to attack fire fighters. Between July 2021 and February 2022 at least 13 attacks were recorded by the City. No injuries were recorded. At least 90 staff members have undergone trauma counselling after they were attacked by residents in Gugulethu, Wallacedene, Bloemkombos, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and more recently Langa.
A City of Cape Town fire fighter has spoken out about his near-death experience two years ago. Platoon commander Granville Mathias was robbed at gunpoint on 17 October 2020 when responding to a fire in Wallacedene. Mathias was attacked by a gun wielding man when he went to investigate a fire, the perpetrator also threatened to kill him and his female colleague. “As I went in I heard a gun being corked behind me and when I turned the guy hit me in the face and there was blood everywhere. When it happened I thought of charging him but I knew that if I make a move he is going to shoot” Mathias said. He was robbed of his cell phone and wallet. A lot of things went through my mind and I made peace with it, I didn’t beg for my life,” Mathias said.
Mathias later went for counselling but returned to work a week later. “I just had to get back to what I love doing because when I was sitting at home I was just thinking about what happened,” Mathias said.
It is understood that fire hoses were slashed with a spade when a fire crew responded to a fire in Langa in April. The matter was referred to the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The City’s safety and security department warned the figures did not reflect the full extent of the damage caused by the attacks on fire fighters. Fire fighters despatched to parts of the City have also been robbed off their belongings and the fire engines have either been stoned or hose pipes are found slashed. Other incidents include bricks being thrown through vehicle windows and the stoning of fire engines.
This also means fire fighters have to be escorted by police subject to availability.
In a report presented to the safety and security committee, fire and rescue executive director Vincent Botto wrote that the attacks put an unnecessary burden on the City’s fleet, budget and service delivery. “That our staff are being harassed, attacked and verbally assaulted is a matter of great concern. In addition to the physical and mental harm caused, these incidents create a service delivery problem because they have a direct impact on the number of staff being on duty when affected staff are deemed to be unfit for duty for a period of time,“ Botto wrote.
He added that some fire fighters were too ashamed to undergo trauma counselling. “It should also be noted that some staff who have suffered at the hands of such criminals, decline the offer of trauma counselling and some injuries sustained, while not being serious enough to warrant staff being hospitalised, cause mental anguish and could result in latent trauma.
Mayco member for safety and security Alderman JP Smith said the attack on staff and vehicles has reduced the City’s response time to fires significantly and way below the national standards. Alderman Smith said depending on the availability of an escort the fire teams could be delayed from a few minutes to twenty minutes more and that drops our response time. “For the first time recently our response time dropped to below the national standards,” Alderman Smith said.
According to the national standards 70 percent of your responses to fires have to happen in under 14 minutes and the City of Cape has since dropped by seven percent due to the attacks, Alderman Smith said.
“For us to have dropped below that it was a big deal because it hasn’t happened before. The biggest factor is that they have to wait for police escorts in certain areas where they had experienced attacks in the parks and the staff are scared to go,” Alderman Smith said.
The City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service responded to 14 978 fires in the last financial year