In early April 2000 a new team of firefighters tackled a shack fire in
the middle of Brixton, Johannesburg. The shack has been built for the residents
of the Joe Slovo squatter camp in the grounds of Brixton Fire Brigade, to
demonstrate their newly-gained skills in fire fighting. The ongoing initiative
is a joint venture between the charity Children of Fire and the Greater
Johannesburg Emergency Management Services Public Education Section (Emergency
Education for short). The next firefighting course will be run in July or
August 2000 for residents of the massive Diepsloot Squatter Camp. Many
residents of Diepsloot were moved there in order to make space for the Africa
Games athletes' village built on the edge of Alexandra Township.
Some Diepsloot course participants have been selected in co-operation
with the Johannesburg Association for the Aged, and catering for trainees is
being done in co-operation with the Othandweni Bakery that helps give street
children a chance for a career. Children of Fire helps badly burnt children but
it is now taking a vigorous role in trying to prevent young southern Africans
from being so badly injured again. Children of Fire co-operates with St John
Ambulance in taking First Aid education into the squatter camps and on July 21,
2000, their second joint training scheme starts inside Diepsloot Squatter Camp
in Gauteng Province.
The emphasis is on enabling people to help themselves; to prevent
injuries and fires in the first place; and for all the successful trainees to
be empowered to train others. Children of Fire director Bronwen Jones underwent
firefighting training alongside what may eventually become the Joe Slovo Proto
Team - a team of multi-skilled people who once had no hope and no work - but
who will go on to train and protect communities like their own. Jones comments:
"The hardest part of training was finding our way around the Smoke House in
total darkness, looking for people who might have been stranded by the fire or
by smoke inhalation."
The Johannesburg Fire Department's Public Education section offers many
community outreach programmes to promote safety and fire prevention behaviour.
The public education section of the emergency services educates the public,
especially children, on how to protect themselves from fire and other risks.
Protecting families and property from the dangers of fire is an on-going lesson
requiring re-enforcement from home, school and community initiatives.
Fire statistics show a sharp increase in incidents reported to the fire
brigades during 1998. A total of 37 604 fires were attended to in 1997 and 52
753 in 1998. There was a 25 per cent increase in residential fires, and the
number is increasing. Fires in homes remain the biggest fire problem. There are
some five thousand fires in conventional homes each year but there are no
reliable figures for squatter camp fires as they are too frequent and too many
homes are lost each time. The insurance industry says that the 1998 fire loss
exceeds R1.3 billion. That is R3.6 million per day or 150 thousand Rand per
hour went up in smoke every day throughout that year.
There are no accurate national statistics for deaths by fire let alone
for serious injuries due to fire, but Children of Fire is starting to display
some statistics on this website. The level of injury is high; the injuries are
exceptionally painful, usually permanently disfiguring and disabliing, and the
cost in terms of medical care is enormous. Fires are most commonly caused by
open flames and are mostly preventable.
Fire and injury prevention education provides an important role in the
reduction and prevention of such losses. Since running the initial courses,
trainees have put their skills to good use.
Mlungisi Cakile said: "Within two weeks of being trained in first aid, I
saved the life of a man with a panga wound to the head; another man with a stab
wound to his chest; and a child who had drunk paraffin." [A panga is a
Another trainee, Dan, said that he had to extinguish a fire on the
second night of his three-day course. "Without the training I wouldn't have
known how to react quickly. My neighbour's shack was on fire but I put out the
In June 2000, Children of Fire in co-operation with the German School of
Johannesburg, installed two swings for children in the Joe Slovo squatter camp.
This "Operation Firebreak" is an endeavour to replace burnt-down or abandoned
shacks with firebreaks. To keep the areas open they will be planted
attractively or given an amenity such as toys for the children.