Three floors down the hull of a ship, surrounded by hot water, Ronald Jacobs, 61, saw his life flash before his eyes as a ball of fire shot over his head, missing him and a colleague by centimeters.
He was the leading firefighter attending to a fire in the docks at Cape Town harbour and he and a colleague were balancing on their knees on a fire-hose to prevent them from standing in hot water when someone opened a hatch on the top floor to pump foam into it.
“I could see the glow of the fire and knew it would be coming toward us. I had a second to make a decision and shouted at my colleague to get down and as we did the ball of fire went over us,” he said.
Mr Jacobs recently retired and this is just one of many memories he reminisces about after fighting fires for 42 years.
A journalist reporting on a fire in an informal settlement inspired Mr Jacobs to become a fireman.
As a young man, he was fascinated by how the firemen worked and when the journalist later chose him to hold his notebook so he could record his piece to camera, Mr Jacobs knew fighting fires was his calling.
The journalist, he said, was Jacques Pauw.
He started working for the Cape divisional council fire service in 1978 and when the City of Cape Town advertised positions for firefighters, he was keen to apply, but the application process was withdrawn before he could apply and he decided to join law enforcement instead.
Then in 1982 the City again advertised positions for firefighters and he asked to be transferred.
“It was an elite white establishment but because of the establishment of Mitchell’s Plain, they had to appoint firefighters of colour,” he said.
And so Mr Jacobs became one of the first firefighters of colour at the City’s Fire and Rescue Service.
Throughout his career he worked in various departments such as, including operations, the training academy, command and control centre and fire and safety.
He was stationed at Hout Bay, Mitchell’s Plain, Epping, Roeland Street and Salt River, among others, and at the Lakeside fire station for the past five years as station commander in charge of platoon 1.
He fondly remembers colleagues and traditions from days gone by.
Many years ago, he said, fire stations had cooks who would prepare meals for the firemen to enjoy together as a team. However, this later stopped but the firemen decided to continue the tradition by bringing their own food, heating it at the station, and eating it together.
Some of his career highlights include being named officer of the year in 2015 and organising an open day for the community in 2016 to illustrate how the fire department works hand in hand with various other departments such as Disaster Risk Management and Law Enforcement.
“I will never forget the happiness it brought the children,” he said.
Mr Jacobs said due to lockdown, he could not celebrate his farewell with his team but on his last day, they stood in two lines in front of the Lakeside fire station and he drove through the guard of honour with his car on his way out.
“It was a very emotional moment,” he said.
He said he was happy to be home with his wife of 37 years, Barbara.
“While I gave my all to my community, she gave her all to our family and supported me in everything I did,” he said.
Mr Jacobs has three children and two grandchildren.
He said while he was happy to be retired, he would always miss the adrenaline rush when the alarm sounds and you have to respond.
Divisional Commander, Frank Forbay, who is stationed at Lakeside, said Mr Jacobs had made a substantial contribution to the fire service and left a legacy to be proud of.
“His work ethic was exemplary in that he dedicated his life to serving the community. He was held in high esteem by his peers, seniors and sub-ordinates,” he said.
Mr Forbay said Mr Jacobs had integrity, was passionate and energetic. “He excelled in his role as a mentor, leaving us with a wealth of knowledge and experience and he will be sorely missed,” he said.
During his four decades of service, Mr Forbay said, Mr Jacobs had experienced political, institutional, social and cultural changes within the Fire and Rescue Service but came through unscathed and remained true to himself.
“He served with pride till the moment he walked out the fire station doors,” he said.
Lakeside Station Commander, Randall Williams, said Mr Jacobs was an inspiration to all and a natural leader, not because of rank, but because of his personality.
“He was known for having too much energy and sometimes he would talk so fast that we could not figure out what he was saying,” Mr Williams said.
Mr Williams said Mr Jacobs was and always will be a role model to all,young and old,and that his name woul name will resonate throughout this fire service for many years.
Mr Williams thanked the Jacobs family for giving 42 years of Mr Jacobs’ life to the fire department.
“It was a pleasure and an honour to have worked for station commander Ronald Jacobs. I hope he enjoys his retirement,” he said.
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