Firefighters hot under the collar

Firefighters at Hout Bay fire station feel they are being grossly underpaid by the City of Cape Town.

The firefighters have also questioned policies on advancement, believing their experience is being overlooked when it comes to opportunities for promotion.

Instead, they say the City is treating the fire services as an “academic” institution, where certificates carry more weight than fighting fires in the field.

Firefighters based in other parts of Cape Town, including Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town, share their grievances and have recently begun picketing outside their respective stations in protest.

The City is aware of the firefighters’ grievances. “We are currently engaging with personnel through their trade unions on the matter in order to reach an amicable resolution. The City is committed to finding a solution in the interest of rendering an effective service to our communities,” said the City’s executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman.

Hout Bay firefighters are frequently hailed as heroes for their work, which not only involves putting out devastating shack fires in Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg but also attending to badly injured accident victims and even delivering babies when the need arises.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being rebuked by the City, firefighters told the Sentinel that the existing pay structure was skewed towards their employer.

“We work 240 hours a month, 160 of which are covered by our basic salary. For the remaining 80 hours, we get an allowance of 22.8% of our salary,” one man said.

“There are different departments in the fire service, including 24-hour operation staff, day-shift workers and control-room workers. Some of us work 24-hour shifts, but then the day-shift guys get the same allowance as us, which we don’t think is fair. We think we should be paid overtime in full, instead of this standby allowance.”

He said that for years firefighters had simply accepted the payment structure but had now realised they deserved better given the risk to their lives and the long hours involved.

According to these sources, the firefighters earn an average of R20 000 a month, while learner firefighters are on about R15 000 a month.

“The City has put a mechanism in place to save money at our expense,” the firefighter said.

That, he said, extended to advancement policies within the fire and rescue services.

“It is very difficult to climb up the ladder. For example, a guy leaves school and goes to the training academy for a year or so. Once he completes his training, he enters the fire services, but he is deemed a learner firefighter. But we have guys who have been classified as learners for more than two years, yet they are performing the same tasks as firefighters.

“In order for them to be recognised as firefighters, they have to undergo another evaluation, even though they have gained experience in the field. This is wrong. Once you’ve qualified, you should have a short probation period and then you should be considered a firefighter. Surely if the City is still categorising a guy as learner they shouldn’t be used in the field?”

Another firefighter said the irony was the City did pay for learners to go on courses, such as driving programmes, yet still considered them inexperienced in terms of their rank.

The men felt too much emphasis was placed on academic qualifications in the fire services.

“You are seeing people becoming officers because they’ve got the certificates and qualifications, but the guy who’s getting dirty fighting fires is not getting ahead. Our recommendation is that a person who has served as a firefighter for more than seven years should automatically be advanced.

“There are guys here who have been mentors to us, who have taught us everything we know, but because they don’t have the right qualifications, they’re not getting ahead. There are veterans who only ever got a Standard 8 (Grade 10); they’ve proved their worth for years, but they don’t go further.”

Another grievance is the so-called “Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2” course materials provided to firefighters.

“These manuals cover firefighting in America and have nothing to do with what we are doing here in Cape Town. Things like the different kinds of fire hydrants you get. How their system works is not relevant to us,” one of the men said.

The firefighters believe the City is also taking advantage of its employees by bestowing “acting” status on those they know are capable in their duties.

“Often guys are asked whether they can act as a platoon leader or even station commander. Because the guys feel this might put them in good stead for promotion, they agree to it. But there’s a catch to this. You will only be paid compensation after 30 days of serving in the acting position, so what they do is terminate you from this position just before the 30-day period, so they don’t have to pay you.

“So what happens then? When a promotion position becomes available, he applies, but is told that he doesn’t have the right qualifications, even though he did the job successfully while in the acting position.”

The men and women stationed in Hout Bay are also concerned that their psychological well-being is not being taken into account.

“There is a lot of emphasis on the physical – how much you can lift or pull – but no one is asking how you are doing in your head. They should assist us with regular mental assessments. We really love this job. It’s all we ever wanted to do. But, at the moment, we are feeling incredibly undervalued.”