An alleged lack of functional fire hydrants with a fire which wouldn’t die has led to the mass evacuation of patients at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital – and it seems lack of maintenance may be the issue.
Wynand Engelbrecht, the CEO of the privately-owned firefighting operation Fire Ops South Africa (SA), explained how the fire in the special dispensary stores on Friday morning was a result of poor maintenance of the ailing structure.
“The fire hydrants were part of a bigger problem. The hospital should not have any patients in it, there were dozens of doors removed that were supposed be smoke control doors and there were no smoke detectors,” he said.
Engelbrecht added Johannesburg fire fighters made the best out of a poor situation and rebuffed claims that the fire reignited on Friday evening.
“When the Johannesburg fire department could not find a working hydrant, they drove their fire trucks up and down, and ferried water around the building and every time they left the scene, the fire would flare up again. At 9pm, the fire raged at approximately 1300 Celsius, there was no reignition,” he said.
If the fire was in the actual hospital, noted Englebrecht, it would have easily spread through the entire building as there would be nothing stopping it from spreading to other floors.
“There’s nothing [to warn] anybody that indicates a fire in a ward because there’s no emergency plan. When I asked for an emergency plan on Friday night from the executive group, they could not produce anything.
“If the hospital emergency plan was there it would include by extension other government hospitals,” he stated.
City of Johannesburg Emergency Medical Services spokesperson said the department was waiting for an investigation to be conducted regarding the cause of the fire.
“The fire investigating officers and South African Police Services (SAPS) forensic team will be on site to conduct the investigation. We haven’t established what the cause of the fire was,” he said.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) called for an immediate investigation after fire ravaged through the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital dispensary section and explained that this was a setback for health workers.
“This was a setback considering that workers were in dire need of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies. As we head towards the third wave of Covid-19 infections, hospitals must be fully stocked with PPE so to avoid the mass infections of frontline workers as it happened during the first wave,” said the general secretary, Zola Saphetha.
Saphetha added that the hospital’s safety measures were being questioned by the union.
“The fact that the fire raged on for many hours proved that occupational safety measures are not adequately adhered to at the hospital. Investigations must reveal if the hospital had a functional fire sprinkler system and other measures to deal with such an ordeal,” she said.
The general secretary said the union would monitor the situation closely.
“Nehawu will continue to sharply raise the issue of health and safety of its members and workers in all workplaces. The fire at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital comes two months after another store room of the Carletonville Hospital where medical equipment worth R23 Million went up in flames,” she stated.
Jack Bloom, the Democractic Alliance (DA) Gauteng Shadow Health MEC, said the fire at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Hospital dealt a huge blow to health services in Gauteng and resuming certain services would take longer than expected.
“I commend the heroic effort to transfer nearly 700 patients to other hospitals after the decision was taken to close CMJH for seven days, but I suspect that certain specialist services will be disrupted for far longer,” he said.
Bloom stated that cancer patient would be hit hard due to machines being damaged during the fire.
“The oncology department was near the parking lot that collapsed. Expensive radiation machines may have been damaged or will need to be salvaged for a new place to operate,” he said.
The Gauteng Shadow Health MEC added he was concerned that large parts of the hospital were possibly not structurally sound after the fire and would not be safe for patients.
He stressed the importance of the Gauteng Infrastructure Development Department assessing the matter speedily.
“The Gauteng Infrastructure Development Department must quickly assess whether the structural integrity of the building as a whole is safe. This hospital was poorly maintained for years, with frequent water leaks and a ceiling that collapsed in March 2017,” he said.
Kwara Kekana, the spokesperson of the Gauteng MEC for Health, said the hospital would be temporarily closed for seven days to allow an assessment of the situation before onsite services can be restored.
“The primary focus was to save lives and ensure a total evacuation of all the remaining 270 patients to other facilities. The evacuation of patients was a safety precaution due to concern of smoke contamination,” she said.
The Charlotte Maxeke Academic hospital has diverted in coming patients to other facilities since Friday afternoon and.
“We are appealing to walk-in patients to seek medical services at other facilities closest to them,” said Kekana.
On Saturday, 415 patients were evacuated from the hospital to various facilities across the province which included: Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic, Steve Biko Academic, Bertha Gxowa, Nelson Mandela Children’s, Tshwane District, Tara and Sterkfontein Hospital.
The Gauteng Provincial Government has activated the provincial call centre to allow family members of the patients to obtain more information about which facilities their loved ones have been transferred to.