The City of Cape Town's fire and rescue service is taking strain as a labour dispute over a standby allowance and working hours deepens.
Over the last few months, officials have been battling it out with the two unions representing firefighters - the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu).
Western Cape Samwu secretary Sidney Flusk says Samwu is the majority union representing around 600 firefighters in the City.
Nearly all members of Samwu are said to be boycotting voluntary overtime hours in protest over the amount they get paid while on "standby".
Flusk stresses that firefighters are overworked and put their lives at risk, and on hold, to serve the public.
After a lunchtime picket by off-duty firefighters at the end of last month, the union officially informed the City it would be withdrawing from a collective agreement that determines working conditions to enable a 24-hour service.
The City at one stage threatened to head to court as it labelled the move an unprotected strike.
It has also warned that it may hold some financially and criminally liable for any losses or damage to property as a result.
News24 understands that some of the 30 stations across the peninsula have experienced worrying shortages as officials play a juggling game to ensure there is enough capacity amid the dispute.
It appears there is a disconnect between the parties over the mechanics and finer details of a resourced fire service.
Standby or overtime?
Firefighters work an average of ten 24-hour shifts a month.
Under contention are 80 of these 240 hours, which are classified as "standby" hours, but which firefighters feel are equivalent to working hours.
After a normal day of active duty between 09:00 and 18:00, firefighters are required to remain at the station until 09:00 the next morning on standby.
They are required to take turns manning the watch room for incoming calls and to attend to any call-outs.
The City's safety and security director Richard Bosman refers to this period as "down time" and operational staff thus get paid a 22.8% allowance in terms of the collective agreement.
But firefighters who spoke to News24 say that this is not standby, as they are stuck at their workplace and not at home with their families.
They also stress that they receive the allowance only, no salary, for standby, Sundays and public holidays.
A firefighter and father of three based in Khayelitsha, who has been in the service for more than 20 years, said he loved his job but felt "exploited".
"They don't pay us Sunday time or public holiday time. We sacrifice so much. If I must tell you over the years how many birthdays I have missed, school concerts, because of the way that we work."
Another firefighter says: "We can't even go get a cooldrink because once we receive a call, we have to leave the station within three minutes and then attend an incident within 10 minutes".
One of their gripes is that day shift staff, who work 160 hours, and operational staff, who work 240 hours, receive exactly the same remuneration.
They would like to be paid in line with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
'Weaknesses' in the system
Firefighters also complained about long-term shortages of fire engines and staff at some stations, a state of affairs that goes against the South African National Standard (SANS): Community Protection Against Fire.
The SANS code sets out a risk-based approach through which resources are allocated in terms of the category that an area falls under.
For example, Category A is for high-risk CBDs and large commercial and industrial areas, while C is for conventionally constructed residential areas and D for rural areas.
Category E is for special risks requiring attendance over and above the previous categories, such as incidents at informal settlements, shopping centres and petrochemical plants.
A seasoned firefighter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believes there are weaknesses in the system that expose tall buildings in built-up areas such as the Cape Town CBD and Strand to possible disaster.
The Roeland Street fire station serves the CBD and surrounds, an area making up almost 30km².
The firefighter shared that while Roeland station has two fire engines, it nearly always transfers one out to assist another station.
When there is a fire in a multi-storey building, two fire engines are needed to pump water for the hydraulic platform.
The firefighter also expressed concern about instances where stations across Cape Town only have a water tender at their disposal. The vehicle is used to transport water to a scene.
"The water tender can fight superficial fires from the outside, but firefighters cannot go in to rescue people because they do not have access to the breathing apparatus which are in the motor pumps (fire engines)."
The firefighter raised concerns about the amount of time it took to rally resources from different stations for a call-out.
In response, Bosman gave assurances that it was standard procedure for multiple stations to attend a call-out and that operators were aware of which stations have what equipment.
"For example, the Roeland Street fire station would be assisted by the Sea Point fire station in the event of an incident in the CBD - with firefighters from both stations able to get there within the required time."
When asked if the City was aware of severe shortages in certain instances, Bosman said it was.
"For the record, Cape Town is better resourced than any other city in South Africa. In addition, no city in South Africa complies with the SANS code."
He said the City had steadily worked towards being within the guidelines every year to continue building the fire and rescue service.
Pressure has intensified since the dispute, with the City implementing various measures to ensure it has enough staff on duty.
Employees to be checked up on while on sick leave
In an email on October 2, which News24 has seen, acting district head Simon Clifford Abrahams notified employees that no further ad hoc leave would be approved because of the stance taken by union members on overtime.
In a service notice by chief fire officer Ian Schnetler on October 4, he advises of contingency measures amid "some challenges" during the dispute.
These include not conducting further training courses and discontinuing overtime for the foreseeable future to ensure maximum availability of staff at stations.
The following day, Schnetler issued a service notice, entitled "Absenteeism - Staff Concerns", in which staff are told they will be visited daily at their homes or places of recovery while on sick leave.
The notice reads that the fire and rescue service is "concerned about the health and well-being of their staff and would like to ensure that all staff who have booked off sick are resting and recovering from their illness".
Staff are told they will have to provide a certificate for every period of sick leave until further notice.
Calling it a once-off occurrence which has since been addressed, Bosman said an unprecedented number of employees had called in sick for a part of the weekend - which he believes was related to the dispute.
"We have recalled staff members who have been on training so that they may fulfil operational duties. There is thus a reduced need for overtime."
Station training will still take place on a daily basis.
Matter to go before Bargaining Council
It remains to be seen how long it will take for parties to come to an agreement.
The last collective agreement with unions was renewed in 2007 for three years.
Since lapsing, it has been renewed every year pending a new agreement between the parties, a process which has taken some time, admits Flusk.
A facilitation process to review the collective agreement resulted in the City offering to increase the standby allowance to 30%, which the unions turned down. They also turned down a 35% recommendation by the facilitator.
The matter has now been declared a formal dispute and will go before the Bargaining Council at the end of this month for conciliation.
If this fails it could take several months for arbitration to be finalised.
Imatu has agreed to work in terms of the existing agreement until the process has been finalised, the City says.
Samwu, however, has given notice to withdraw from the agreement on November 5.
Samwu warned it will be held liable for any damage
This means its members will likely expect to be paid overtime for anything above a 40-hour week until there is a new agreement.
News24 has previously reported that firefighters are also hoping for their voices to be heard on issues such the R170 monthly meal allowance, policies on acting allowances and career advancements.
"The administration is committed to resolving the allowance issue as speedily as possible, however, our appeal is for firefighters to honour their current working conditions until such time as the arbitration process has been finalised," said Bosman.
"It is important to note that the terms of the collective agreement have been the standard in the City of Cape Town for many years and these terms are similar to what is in place in a number of other countries."
In a memorandum to staff earlier this month, which News24 has seen, Bosman warns Samwu that it will be held financially liable for any damage that the City may suffer arising out of its inability to offer a proper service.
He also warns the union and members that they may be held criminally liable for "any loss of life, injury to persons or damage to property, acts of intimidation arising from its unlawful conduct".
But Flusk said the onus was on the City as the decision-maker, and not staff or unions, to ensure it is properly resourced in terms of the Municipal Systems Act.
He added that firefighters have never willingly sacrificed life or property.
"Firefighters die due to a shortage of staff and non-compliance."
Seasonal workers a 'risk'
Bosman has assured residents that contingency plans are in place to mitigate staffing issues brought on by the dispute.
The City will recruit 120 seasonal firefighters as it heads into fire season as a result of warmer, drier weather.
Vegetation fires are a shared responsibility between the City and other parties such as Table Mountain National Park, the Volunteer Wildfire Services and Working on Fire.
Concerned firefighters say that using seasonal workers is risky because they believe they are unskilled and "will now be considered to man fire engines".
Bosman said the City had cooperation agreements with other firefighting agencies and was able to procure aerial support.
"The City also has access to resources from surrounding municipalities in the event that they are required, at no cost. Similarly, City firefighters are dispatched to assist surrounding municipalities as and where the need arises".