Lack of emergency vehicles could spell disaster on busy N3 that runs past Pietermaritzburg
Having dodged the proverbial bullet twice in four months, it has emerged that the Umgungundlovu District Municipality, headquartered in Pietermaritzburg, would struggle to deal with any potential catastrophe on the N3 that bisects the KZN Midlands — just as fire season arrives.
On 12 May 2022, a Zambian-registered truck hauling a tanker of hydrochloric acid left the northbound carriageway of the N3 near Howick and plunged down an embankment onto the south-bound freeway.
Miraculously, the south-bound fast lane of the country’s busiest highway was free of traffic at that moment. A collision setting off a hydrochloric acid explosion would have spewed clouds of highly flammable hydrogen gas and toxic chlorine gas into the air.
The municipality dodged an even deadlier bullet on 11 February when hundreds of travellers on the N3 approaching Pietermaritzburg from Durban diced with disaster when a fully laden LPG tanker overturned near Ashburton.
Motorists and their passengers, many en route to the Midmar Mile, were oblivious to the potential catastrophe. All it needed was a spark to ignite the highly flammable load of 8,500 litres of compressed gas.
Preventing almost certain death on the highway and in Ashburton straddling the N3 that Friday afternoon were two emergency response trucks summoned from the Pietermaritzburg and Durban fire services. For hours that afternoon, through the night and well into the next morning, the trucks hosed down the tanker to prevent an inferno.
The vehicles were called out because the Umgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) was incapable of rendering an adequate emergency service.
The UMDM’s fire truck dispatched from its station at Ashburton was not equipped to deal with the emergency, a transgression of the Disaster Management Act.
Of deep concern to professionals in the industry was that emergency protocols designed to mitigate catastrophic disasters were being ignored. In the case of the hydrochloric acid spill, traffic, including heavy trucks, sped past the accident seemingly oblivious to the danger.
The LPG spill in February called for traffic to be stopped on both carriageways, the evacuation of people from their cars and officials to move them at least 800m away. Even that wouldn’t have been enough if the tanker had caught alight, according to Joe Nassar of Starstruck Fire Services.
He explained that LPG expands at 270 times the volume of gas to the volume of the liquid, and that the force of the blast would have hurled the tanker 100m into the air.
It would also have unleashed a giant fireball and a fiery gas cloud would have blanketed an area of 3km2. Because LPG is heavier than air, the flames would latch on to any combustible material to keep burning.
Cars and their fuel tanks would have been fodder for the perfect firestorm.
“It would have rained fire from the sky,” said Nassar. “All those people driving past and taking selfies don’t realise how lucky they are to be alive… it’s a miracle.”
Malaise in municipal management
The potential catastrophes point to a much deeper malaise in the management of the UMDM’s emergency and fire services that fall under its community services division.
As irony would have it, the emergency services unit is headed by Dr Xolani Emmanuel Muthwa — who also happens to be the acting head of the department of community services.
Several professionals accused Muthwa of not taking his duties seriously and of feathering his own nest, including spending more time pursuing an academic career than leading the emergency unit.
Appointed as UMDM fire chief in 2005, Muthwa was awarded a doctorate by the Durban University of Technology in December 2021 for his thesis on customers’ perception of the quality of water supplied by the municipality.
“Where does a fire chief find time to study? He’s supposed to attend fires and emergencies,” said Harold Smithers of KZN Fire Services.
A recently retired firefighter was even more forthright.
“The capacity of the unit is a disgrace… it’s been going down for more than 10 years since he (Muthwa) took charge,” said Donovan Brown.
UMDM’s communications manager, Brian Zuma, said the position of fire chief is “full-time”, with a district commander and station commanders under him. Asked about Muthwa’s lecturing commitments, Zuma said Muthwa “no longer lectures… he hasn’t been for the past four to five years”.
An austerity drive compounds problems in the staffing of the unit. In March, the UMDM announced in a staff circular that all overtime and standby allowances for emergency staff were cancelled as the council battled the non-payment of water bills.
At the same time, it took on 19 recruits from the Expanded Public Works Programme, a move that was criticised as a way to bolster minimum staffing levels prescribed by emergency services legislation.
It has since emerged that the municipality increased the wages of the 19 novice firefighters. This called into question the March decision to slash overtime and standby allocations.
“They don’t have enough money to pay qualified personnel, but can find the money to pay people with no experience,” lamented Joe Franks of Starstruck Fire Services.
Franks said it was common knowledge in the firefighting fraternity that the UMDM’s emergency response unit was suffering from low morale.
“They’re understaffed and the senior firefighters are under huge pressure because of the poor conditions,” he said.
“How can they expect the emergency services unit to perform?”
Training for the novices has also come into question, according to Hazel Lake, DA whip on the UMDM council.
“We heard during an oversight visit (to fire stations in local municipalities under UMDM) that the training is haphazard and poor, so that’s disturbing,” she said.
Lake previously expressed concern about the municipality’s emergency response abilities ahead of the fire-prone KZN Midlands’ winter season.
“Frankly, we’re deeply concerned, whether it’s a runaway fire sweeping through an informal settlement or a calamity on the N3,” she said.
Fire truck tender
A controversial tender for four fire trucks raises more questions about Muthwa’s tenure.
Reports surfaced late last year that a fire truck commissioned in August 2021 was poorly equipped for its intended role. This became apparent when a call for the jaws of life found that the equipment couldn’t be dislodged from its compartment and that bins housing emergency equipment were locked.
The failures triggered alarm bells about the tender for the supply of the trucks. The anomalies abounded. A self-congratulatory public handover of two Isuzu trucks at Key Delta in Pietermaritzburg in August last year contrasted with a dearth of information about the trucks in any of the 2020/21 quarterly reports.
While a R20,000 entry (sustenance for firefighters at a Pietermaritzburg landfill blaze) is meticulously noted — as are several items for “water equipment” and the like — a multimillion-rand tender for the supply of four fire trucks was not.
The only mention of the fire truck tender is an obscure “contract number” reference in the Q4 2020/21 report. Tabled under “Supplier Performance Management”, the reference — 7/3/235 — is “for the lease of four emergency vehicles” by Scelo Business Consulting, an entity established in 2015 to lease vehicles to local government.
In the UMDM’s response to questions, Zuma said the R18.6-million lease agreement was stretched over 36 months. The deal confounds industry professionals, who asked why millions were being spent on equipment that could have been bought for significantly less.
“It surprises me that a municipality would buy vanishing assets,” said Robert Pegg, a fire services specialist of more than 30 years standing.
Pegg said that a state-of-the-art Scania truck — fully fitted as an emergency response vehicle — would cost less than R3-million. A refurbished top-class vehicle would be half that, said Pegg.
“The maths doesn’t add up,” he said. “It’s a strange choice indeed.”
Zuma said a cost-benefit analysis indicated that with its budget, UMDM could afford only one fire engine — that would leave three other municipalities without a fire truck.
“The municipality could not afford to buy the trucks outright and ensure adequate maintenance and service,” he said.
Instead, UMDM is paying about R500,000 a month that, over the next few months, could have secured the vehicles outright. Under the current agreement, the municipality has, after 36 months, the option to renew the lease for a further 24 months.
The UMDM deal is also Scelo Business Consulting’s first foray into the lease of emergency response vehicles, as it proudly proclaims on its website. The deal is for the finance, supply and maintenance of the four vehicles. Insurance, as Scelo Business Consulting spells out on its website, is for the account of its clients or a service provider appointed to render the service.
Zuma wouldn’t disclose the insurance costs and said Scelo Business Consulting was responsible for a three-year/100,000km service and warranty plan.
Lake expressed the DA’s dismay at the figures, saying they made no economic sense.
“These are horrifying. The figures continue to outline the outright financial mismanagement at the municipality,” she said. DM
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved