Masiphumelele community leaders have agreed to be trained as fire marshals to control crowds and help firefighters move through the settlement with more ease.
This was discussed at a meeting organised by Jonathan Mills, safety and security representative for Ward 69, on Wednesday December 7, to find a way forward after allegations were made that Masiphumelele residents threatened firefighters and damaged their hoses during the fire on Monday November 21 that destroyed more than 600 shacks, displacing 1800 people.
The meeting was attended by Living Hope, firefighters from the Kommetjie fire station, and Disaster Risk Management.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said the fire could have been extinguished much earlier had firefighters not been threatened by the community. A video he released showed water spraying from several holes in the fire hoses.
“Because the hoses were cut and perforated along their length by residents attempting to extinguish their own fires, the community was adversely affected resulting in a much larger area of destruction that would otherwise not have been the case,” he said.
Mr Mills said the video, which had been shared on social media, had caused a lot of division in the community and resulted in “toxic comments.” The video had also resulted in Living Hope receiving fewer donations than before, he said.
Living Hope executive director Victor Thomas confirmed this.
What was portrayed in the video and what the staff of Living Hope had witnessed were very different, he said.
“There were hundreds of people huddled in tears with the little possessions they could retrieve before the fire destroyed everything,” he said.
Mr Mills said the community denied cutting the fire hoses in half and it was likely the hoses had been “stabbed” to create water points.
Some of the hoses had been perforated when firefighters arrived at the scene and if any hoses were cut, it could have happened from them being dragging over metal sheets, he said.
Mr Mills said that during the meeting it became clear that “everyone was on the same team” and the community wanted to help and not prevent the firefighters from doing their jobs.
However, Mr Mills added, nice words and handshakes were not enough so a definitive plan was put into action.
The community will set up a “Masiphumelele FireWatch”, similar to the Masiphumele Neighbourhood Watch, MasiWatch, that will include training at the fire station to assist firefighters on scene with crowd control, fire prevention, and making sure hydrants and booster valves are accessible.
The leadership will educate the community on what to do in case of a fire, such as calling the fire station directly at 021 444 0111, and encourage better understanding between the community and the firefighters.
Community leader Siphenathi Kimbili said he was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. He denied that any of the fire hoses had been cut.
He said the fire engine had arrived at the scene with perforated hoses and if residents had perforated the hoses and taken them from the firemen it was not to sabotage their efforts but out of desperation.
“The people of Masi don’t know the procedures followed by the firemen and they only want to do one thing and that is fighting the fire. They will use buckets to fight the fire and some had taken the hoses to fill up their buckets,” he said.
The video had created a lot of negativity because so many comments were very “insulting to the people of Masiphumelele”, he said.
“I was one of the people who were very upset about the comments. People were saying we let our houses burn down on purpose just to get ‘a Christmas’. It was insulting to our people.”
The Masiphumelele community wanted to set the record straight, he said.
“We are excited to build new relationships with the firefighters. This will open new doors for the community and the firefighters.”
Mr Smith said cases in which firefighters had been hindered in their duties were not specific to Masiphumelele and it “readily occurs across various areas when emergency services respond to incidents”.
He said he hoped Mills’s efforts to strengthen ties with Masiphumelele’s community leaders would allow emergency responders to deliver an improved service.
At the time of going to print, the City’s Fire and Rescue Services had not responded to the Echo’s request for comment.