New Era journalist at Walvis Bay Eveline de Klerk had an On-The-Spot interview with Walvis Bay fire chief Willie van Zyl on how he joined the fire brigade and about his work experience and job satisfaction. This is what the fire chief had to say.
NE: Mr Van Zyl tell us how long have you been a fire fighter and what prompted you to choose this particular career?
WZ: I have been in this career for approximately 28 years. I am a qualified motor mechanic, however 28 years ago I decided to work for the community. I applied for the position of civil defence officer way back at the Walvis Bay Municipality. I was officially appointed as the Fire Chief of Walvis Bay on January 02, 1985 and have been a fire fighter ever since.
NE: How many firefighters does the municipality currently employ and on what basis are they employed?
WZ: The fire fighting team of Walvis Bay consists of three full-time fire fighters and 27 voluntary fire fighters who are also employed elsewhere, but offer their time and energy to the community. However, we all have a common purpose and goal, which is to save lives, not just in fires. We also render services in cases of accidents. When accident victims are trapped inside vehicles we normally assist.
NE: How would you rate the performance of the fire-fighting unit in Walvis Bay?
WZ: Although we perform admirably under the circumstances, we would like to increase the number of permanent fire fighters to further improve our services. Hopefully this would materialize in the near future.
NE: Walvis Bay does not have a permanent fire fighting team. What is the reason for this?
WZ: A permanent fire fighting team that serves the community of Walvis Bay on a 24-hour basis is long overdue. The decision to appoint permanent fire fighters is however now in the process and will be done in stages. We will see the implementation of the process soon.
NE: Is it true that the fire fighters arrive late at fire scenes and if so why is that so?
WZ: No, fire fighters can only respond to fires if they are alerted. It regularly happens that residents first attempt to put out fires themselves, and they only call in the fire brigade once they do not succeed. Fire fighters have to respond from their houses to the fire station that results in a delay in response time. This will evidently change once permanent fire fighters are appointed.
NE: I am under the impression that the provision was already made in the previous financial year for the appointment of permanent fire fighters for Walvis Bay and if so how far is the process and why is it taking so long to appoint permanent fire fighters?
WZ: You are right, the decision to appoint additional permanent fire fighters was taken in the previous financial year. Provision has been made for the appointment of such firemen during the current (2012/2013) financial year. The appointment of the first two additional fire fighters will take place soon.
NE: Compared to five years back and now, how has the fire fighting process changed, in terms of reporting? Are residents willing to report fires?
WZ: The process has changed slightly although the reporting of fires still remains a challenge. The mushrooming of shacks on the other hand is one of the issues that remain a challenge. Our duties are also influenced by the fact that call out fees were previously applicable. However, the fees were abolished recently and we hope residents will make use of this development. We are expecting a more positive response from residents in this regard since the Council has decided to abolish call out fees when fires are reported.
NE: What is your take on the current situation in Walvis Bay, in terms of the increasing number of illegal dwellings at the town? Does it impact on the number of fires being recorded at the town?
WZ: The construction of illegal dwellings will always be a headache for any local authority. This problem can only be solved if the regulations and by-laws of the local authority are adhered to. Fires will always occur more frequently in such areas where illegal structures are situated. Illegal structures are something that we cannot shy away from on the other hand. Collective efforts are needed both by local authorities and the government to seek solutions on how we can address the social evil we face. And in a town such as Walvis Bay we are continuously faced by a shortage of land for residents.
NE: Has the municipality embarked upon awareness raising campaigns in the past and when was the last such sensitization campaign conducted?
WZ: Raising awareness about the dangers of fires is a continuous process for the Walvis Bay Municipality. The fire brigade informs residents through the local municipal newsletter continuously. Emergency numbers are displayed by means of stickers and through newspapers. The fire brigade also conducts meetings with the general public, especially in areas that are more prone to fires.
NE: How are the residents responding to these campaigns?
NE: Attendance at all previous meetings was worrisome as only a small number of residents attended those meetings. Nonetheless, we will continue with our efforts to inform and educate residents of the dangers associated with shacks and not only about shack fires. We regard this information as vital and essential for the social wellbeing of our residents. Shack fires are also associated with several health issues, therefore members of the community need to be informed about the dangers they are facing, while living in these informal dwelling.”
NE: What would you say are the major causes of fires in Walvis Bay and Why?
WZ: The main causes of fires experienced in Walvis Bay are normally illegal electrical connections. These are even done in shacks that are built with highly flammable materials. Also, these shacks are built too close to each other and this causes fires to spread rapidly to nearby shacks too.
Also alcohol abuse and open fires are also some of the causes. In many instances residents would leave burning candles and gas appliances unattended, which always lead to fires. We have reached out to members of the community on numerous occasions through awareness campaigns to make sure that they blow out candles and turn of gas appliances to avoid shack fires.
NE: Could you give us an indication how many illegal dwellings, houses burnt down during this year alone?
WZ: At least 19 shacks burnt down this year.
NE: For the past five years how many lives have been lost due to shack fires?
WZ: In the Erongo we already lost seven lives, but we are positive that we would soon have a zero fatality rate once we receive more permanent fire fighters.
NE: Since the government does not support illegal dwellings have residents and homeowners been aware of the policy and what has the municipality been doing to create awareness?
WZ: The municipality of Walvis Bay has three building inspectors who try their utmost best to curb this tendency but the challenges remain. Until people are able to afford better accommodation, it will remain extremely challenging. We are aware of the challenges we face with regards to housing and the availability of land, however the municipality with relevant line ministries are in the processes of addressing these issues.