Job is a ‘calling’ for firefighter

Tracey Whittaker in front of a fire engine at the Milnerton fire station.

The Milnerton fire station has had its hands full in the past few weeks.

As one of 30 fire stations dotted around Cape Town, firefighters have been deployed all over the area as the current fire season rages.

Tracey Whittaker, who lives in Flamingo Vlei and operates between Goodwood, Milnerton and Epping stations, is a senior firefighter who has been with the Fire and Rescue Department for 20 years.

For her it was a calling and she has been living out her dream not only fighting fires, but acting as media coordinator and also training rookie intakes.

The bug bit for Ms Whittaker when she was still at school and did job shadowing. “I realised it’s not just a fire, there is far more to it. No day is ever the same and it’s constantly evolving. And there is the most amazing camaraderie among us as we spent long hours together,” she says.

“It is quite something to see a fire raging and how many days it takes to put it out,” she says, as she describes how she and dozens of other firefighters spent more than a week battling to keep the flames down in Lourensford in Somerset West last week from January 3 to 12, and following that, dealing with the fire in Simon’s Town.

“It’s a very emotional issue for householders and nearby residents, as they are threatened and unless you have been involved in it you cannot begin to realise the feelings that run through you from either being in a life-threatening situation to possibly losing your home.”

Contrary to what many people think, fire stations also deal in trauma and rescue. Ms Whittaker has the same qualifications as emergency rescue personnel in intermediate life support. “We treat patients here for example for stabbings; for trauma issues before an ambulance will take them to the hospital.

“The department also uses the jaws of life in life-threatening accidents and other emergencies. All areas are covered when one fire station assists another with staff so that there is never a situation where staff are lacking.

“One station will back another up,” she says. The current months are among the most stressful for the department as bush fires spread so rapidly. When a fire like the recent one at Lourensford started, a command post was set up on site and an incident management team deployed. The fire department works closely with Working with Fire and the National Parks Boards in order to stamp out fires as effectively and as quickly as possible to prevent any spread. Ms Whittaker says that in the event that you are close to a raging fire, “evacuate as soon as possible”.

“Make that emergency call immediately. The sooner you can leave to a safe place the better, that is while you can still see clearer and the smoke has not engulfed. Otherwise you will suffer from smoke inhalation.”

Ms Whittaker adds that it is vital for every family member or all people living in a home to know the emergency drill and to have a plan. “Have the emergency numbers pre-programmed in your phone and work out beforehand what you are actually going to do.”

With the current weather conditions, strong winds and fire season at its peak, Ms Whittaker advises:

Never leave petrol in a coke bottle or other large plastic bottle as a child can tamper and set it alight. In the same vein, never leave fire-lighters, matches or lighters around in a house where there are small children.

Never leave the embers of a fire or a candle burning and never leave a candle near a curtain unattended.

Never leave on any electrical appliances, such as a toaster or iron, when you go out.

Never leave something cooking in oil on a stove unattended as it can spatter and also harm children.

Ms Whittaker summed it up by saying that it’s extremely important to understand how fires start. Sadly many are also due to negligent behaviour, which is also associated with drug and alcohol abuse. “The main thing is if we can create awareness.”

Visit http://www.capetown.gov.za/fireandrescue

For fire emergencies call 107 or 021 480 7700

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