10 August 2017

Namibia: Busy Days for Walvis Bay Firefighters

WALVIS Bay has been making the news with reports of shack fires that have kept the fire department busy.

This week alone, 16 shacks and four houses caught fire in different sections of the towns. The fire department suspects that electrical short circuits caused by illegal connections are to blame.

When one shack catches fire, chances are that the fire will spread to up to 20 others because the shacks built close to each other, leaving many people homeless.

The Namibian talked to Walvis Bay firefighters, the heroes that have been trying to not only save lives by putting out the fires but also continuously educating the young and old on what to do in a fire situation and how to prevent fires.

At the same time, the fire department is also continuously disseminating information and training young and old in firefighting.

Dennis Basson, the chief of fire services at the Walvis Bay municipality took the news crew on the journey of a day in the life of a Walvis Bay firefighter.

"People often ask when our day starts and when it ends. Official hours are from 08h00 to 17h00, but as firefighters, we are on standby 24 hours per day. In case of an incident of a minor nature, the appointed officers for that specific day will respond. In a major event, the entire complement of firefighters will be called to attend to that emergency. That will include the voluntary firefighters," he said.

The firefighting department consists of seven permanent career firefighters and 24 volunteers. An average day starts with a parade where firefighters share relevant information and are assigned tasks.

The team then shares duties such as attending meetings, emergency response calls with fire teams and performing fire prevention functions with fire crews, and demonstrating operations with schools and interested community members.

"Firefighting is not only limited to running when the siren goes off. We are not always at the station, as the community sadly believes. It is a full-time job which requires a lot of activities. Sometimes people see that it is quiet at the office and think we are just lazying around. It is not the case," said Basson.

While community members sometimes complain that the firemen arrive too late on the scene, Basson said that firefighters are always ready and trained to put on their gear in seconds, prepare trucks and dispatch to emergencies in the shortest possible time.

The Walvis Bay Fire Brigade has seven vehicles, which can hold up to 17 500 litres of water. Water in the tanks is not always enough, and firefighters have to rely on fire hydrants in the streets to secure a constant flow of water to extinguish fires effectively. The average time that fire trucks spend on fire scenes is two hours.

Basson always urges residents to be patient and accommodative towards firefighters, as communities do not realise that it is a challenge just to get to the fire scene.

"Firefighters encounter problems with road users that do not make way for emergency vehicles, bystanders are always blocking the way, and parents do not keep their children away from the road when we try to get to the scene. We are also people with feelings, and we have children. Therefore, we are extra careful not to run them over. Children as young as two years always run to the fire scene because they see everybody running there."

Basson also said people make it difficult for the firefighters to carry out their work by stealing the copper heads of fire hydrants to sell to scrap metal dealers. He urged community members who witness these acts to report to the police so that faucets can be fixed, in case a fire breaks out on their street.

He advised people to memorise or save the emergency numbers of their town, as fires happen everywhere. They are also requested to assist the firefighters by making way for them to pass on the road, report any uncontrolled fires in their neighbourhood and stay out of the way when firefighters arrive at emergency scenes.

The most common causes of fires at the coast are cooking pots left on the stove, and overloading of electrical appliances. Most of the fires happen during winter, although some happen during other seasons because the weather in Walvis Bay is unpredictable. Windy conditions further worsen the problem, as fires spread faster when flames are blown to the next building.

As firefighters, Basson says the crews often leave the scene with mixed emotions because they are also human.

"Firefighters always take this career as a calling. It will always be heartbreaking for firefighters to see fellow Namibians belongings to fires. Firefighters will always feel proud when they make a difference at emergency incidents. The pumping of adrenaline and the exhaustion during fires are part of a firefighter's daily life," he said.

"I feel bad when I see people losing their property. Nobody wants that to happen to his family, and we are all family. I am also proud that we are saving goods and people are not dying" said David Ndjuluwa, a crew member at the fire station.

"I want to urge people to keep the situation under control by calling us while the fire is still small so that we can come there on time. We respond on time, but we would not want to find burnt property when we get there" says Samuel Mutota.

The firefighters also condemned those who steal from victims during a fire and urged residents to be sympathetic towards victims.

"Some people run to the fire scene with the aim of stealing the victims' belongings during the confusion, although they know that it is the only salvaged item."

They further encourage community members to be generous and help out with temporary shelter, food and clothes while the mayor's office and other institutesions make plans to help the affected families.

The Walvis Bay fire brigade office is also interested in gender equality and encourages more women to join the force. It currently has one woman fire fighter - a volunteer - but says more will be appointed in future.

One hundred and three shacks burned down in 2016, while 43 were destroyed between January and June this year. Basson is satisfied that no fatalities were recorded during the past two years.

The latest fire incident happened on Tuesday at around 17h30 at Kuisebmond. Ten shacks burned down in the Namport area of the suburb, caused by a short circuit. Another house started burning at around 22h00 on Tuesday night. The house was deserted, and nobody knows what could have caused the fire.

Walvis Bay has a dedicated emergency number, 081 922 which is also a toll-free number, as well as 081 122 0888, 081 122 0833 and 081 143 5875. The department also has a siren which is situated on the roof of the civic centre. This siren is activated by police officers on duty at the Walvis Bay charge office and can be heard from all corners of the town.

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