Johannesburg, which promotes itself as a world class African city, has only one working fire truck.
Cape Town, in comparison, invested in 133 new fire trucks over the last two years to complement and ultimately replace its current fleet.
This is according to Rapport, citing Wynand Engelbrecht, CEO of the privately owned firefighting operation Fire Ops SA.
Engelbrecht is a former Midrand fire chief and a former operational commander of the City of Roodepoort.
Speaking to Rapport, Engelbrecht said the City of Joburg has five fire trucks. Three of these are permanently broken, one works every now and then, and one is permanently in service.
He said the working fire truck is often at a station far away from where a fire breaks out, which is why it can take so long for it to arrive at a scene.
City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi dismissed Engelbrecht’s claim that they only have one working fire truck.
He admitted their fire trucks spend most of their time in repair shops, but said they typically have between seven and eleven fire trucks.
Engelbrecht said this is a lie. He said Mulaudzi’s claim may include red Hazmat vehicles which are used to clear up hazardous materials which look similar to fire trucks.
Mulaudzi admitted they have a challenge, adding that they are not trying to cover up the fact that there is a severe shortage of fire trucks in the city.
Because of the shortage they have an agreement with neighbouring municipalities – Tshwane and Ekurhuleni – to assist when needed.
What is surprising about the current dire situation is that the City of Joburg has been aware of the problem for years.
Former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba said when he took office in 2016, he made it a top priority to ensure that “our aged red fleet, including many broken down fire engines, were repaired and returned to operations”.
Shortly taking office, the DA announced that it has done in a month “what the ANC government couldn’t do for years” – get 29 fire rescue vehicles back in action and service.
It was, however, still struggling with legacy issues. The multi-party government inherited a contract originally signed in 2015 where the city was scheduled to receive new fire engines.
It was subsequently discovered that the contract was tainted with allegations of fraud and corruption. The City therefore cancelled the contract.
In July 2019, the City of Joburg placed a new R216 million order for fire engines and other fire emergency vehicles.
In August 2019, MMC for Public Safety, Michael Sun announced he visited one of the five assembly plants where 40 new fire engines were being built.
“I inspected the assembly plant to ensure that the service provider is on track with its production schedule and that the City will receive the new fire engines within the three months delivery time,” Sun said.
He also announced in 2019 that nine of the city’s fire stations were upgraded, and part of the process was to have a “new fire engine in every fire station”.
Fast forward to 2021 in the department still seems to be in disarray. Mashaba’s 2019 promise of “an unprecedented acquisition of fire engines for the municipality” and “30 fire stations in the City each receiving a new fire engine” is now a distant memory.
The City of Joburg is still facing the same challenges it did five years ago, with a very small fleet of fire trucks which are old and prone to breakdowns.
The severe shortage of fire engines means Johannesburg residents are not adequately protected against fires.
As if this is not enough, Johannesburg residents are also charged thousands for the service even if it arrives late and is unable to extinguish the blaze.
One Johannesburg resident said she was invoiced over R6,000 by the fire department for their help in putting out a fire which completely destroyed her home.
A Bryanston resident had a similar experience, but was charged nearly R30,000 despite the fire department not being able to save his house.
Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (EMS) said communities are expected to pay for the services rendered by the fire department – just like any other services.
“There is a perception that the services are free, which is not correct,” Johannesburg EMS said.