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Helen Joseph allegedly a fire hazard before 2010 World Cup, and still is

Had there been a disaster during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg was prepared and on standby to provide emergency medical services, but just months before that, it had been declared a fire risk by the City of Johannesburg’s Emergency Management Services. At the time nothing was done to make it fire safe – the finding was allegedly ‘ignored’.

Staff say the hospital is still a fire hazard, reports Daily Maverick.

In the wake of doctors speaking out about the terrible conditions at Helen Joseph, two senior officials, one in the Health Department and one in the City of Johannesburg (COJ), have come forward to reveal that the hospital had allegedly been condemned as a fire hazard before 2010 and that, at the time, the Gauteng provincial Health Department and hospital CEO were fully aware of this.

Maverick Citizen also has evidence that suggests next to nothing has been done to make the hospital fire-safe since then.

The doctor concerned was then a senior official in charge of the Gauteng Health Department Emergency Medical Services. In the months before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the doctor was among those tasked with preparing Helen Joseph Hospital to meet Fifa’s safety standards in case of a disaster.

At the time ANC heavyweight Brian Hlongwa (later fingered by the SIU in a massive corruption scandal) was MEC for Health; the head of department was Kamy Chetty (now CEO of the NHLS); and the hospital CEO was Gladys Bogoshi, now CEO of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.

‘Total mess’

According to the doctor, when she started at Helen Joseph it was a “total mess” and a potential disaster itself. The doctor claims that in trying to liaise with CEO Bogoshi “we kept hitting heads”. Nonetheless, she did her best to put systems in place, including a communications centre.

Things came to a head when, just months before the World Cup, an attempt was made to run a mock disaster “to assess if we had everything in place”.

This required close liaison with the City of Johannesburg to ensure the availability of fire engines, paramedics etc. Maverick Citizen spoke to one of the most senior officials in the COJ at the time, now retired. He too requested anonymity.

He confirmed the doctor’s account and said senior management at Helen Joseph had been told by the COJ they “couldn’t run a mock disaster because of fire safety risks at the hospital.” He said inspections by the COJ’s Emergency Management Services and fire officials in 2009 had found that the hospital was a fire hazard.

He confirmed the findings had been formally reported to the hospital and the Health Department, but “they were ignored” because they did not want to jeopardise the World Cup. When asked what action had been taken for non-compliance, he responded:

“Bylaws were not enforceable due to some loophole in the justice system. So citations issued were ignored without consequences.”

‘Blocked hoses, broken hydrants, fire escapes bolted closed’

On being told of the fire risk by the COJ the doctor said: “I went and checked all fire hoses. Every one of them was blocked; all of the hydrants were broken and some fire escapes were bolted closed.”

The doctor says she had to report her findings to the senior management in the province and the hospital because “she was unable to confirm Helen Joseph would be capable of responding to a disaster”.

She also commissioned a private fire inspection, which confirmed the concerns of the COJ.

“I couldn’t get anyone from provincial or local government to come through. They weren’t interested. I had no right to do this, but I needed to cover myself.”

This week Charlotte Maxeke CEO Bogoshi told us she had “no recollection of the report from the COJ condemning the hospital as a fire hazard”. As a result no steps were taken to address fire risks; “N/A” responded Bogoshi.

On 10 June 2010, the day before the start of the World Cup, the doctor said the hospital was visited by Kamy Chetty, the Gauteng HOD, and the then chief operating officer in the department who “wanted to see all of the problems”.

When she was contacted this week Chetty too said: “I don’t recall any report from COJ on Helen Joseph. I suggest you check with Gauteng Infrastructure dept as they would be the recipients if such a report were given. It will be difficult for me to remember what meetings I had 12 years ago. According to my records, I was in Pretoria. I also would not have been responsible to assess readiness as there was an expert team that did that. I did visit hospitals regularly, including Helen Joseph.”

However, the next day the doctor was relieved of her duties as head of EMS at the hospital and replaced with another doctor, newly qualified in emergency medicine and far less experienced.

“I went on sick leave and when I came back I was relieved of my position, and after a few months, moved to (another post) at a lower salary to teach at Wits University.”

Still not safe?

This week in a WhatsApp group that includes the Minister of Health and many other senior officials in the department, as well as activists, media and members of the Progressive Health Forum (PHF), the doctor said she was “very proud of my colleagues at HJH standing up” (and speaking about the conditions there).

She said she had not previously gone public about what had happened in 2010 “from the fear of how my career changed course and continues to do so”.

She calls it an “irony that nothing was done except that the CEO at the time, who knew what was happening, was moved to Charlotte Maxeke where a tragedy occurred with the fire.”

As far as could be established, next to nothing has been done since 2010 to make Helen Joseph Hospital fire-safe. In fact, minutes obtained by Maverick Citizen of a Disaster Management Committee meeting at HJH held on 28 February 2020 recorded that a disaster drill should be conducted every 12 months, but couldn’t because “at the moment we do not have the following:
• Floor plan for the hospital.
• No fire detection system.
• Alarm system installation not completed.”

This week a senior doctor at the hospital said an internal assessment of fire safety had been conducted after the fire at Charlotte Maxeke in April 2021, but that as far as he could see no action had followed. He said doctors in Gauteng face a dilemma as most of their hospitals do not meet fire safety standards, but they have no alternative other than to continue working in them because their patients will suffer.

“We cannot afford healthcare services to just stop if another hospital is closed. You saw what happened after the closure of Charlotte Maxeke.”

Robert Mulaudzi, spokesperson for Johannesburg Emergency Management services, told Maverick Citizen that records from 2010 were not available because files are discarded after five years. He said when Helen Joseph was last inspected in September 2021 “the area which was inspected is the psychiatric section as it is a stand-alone building and it was cleared to be safe”.

According to Mulaudzi, “inspections are conducted at least once per year and all the three main hospitals that fall under our jurisdiction have been inspected, namely Bara, Helen Joseph and Charlotte Maxeke.”

Questions sent by Maverick Citizen to the CEO of Helen Joseph were referred to the Gauteng Department of Health. Questions sent to the department (see below) went unanswered.

Daily Maverick article – Helen Joseph Hospital was declared a fire hazard before the 2010 World Cup — little has been fixed since (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Helen Joseph doctors’ plea for action as hospital in ‘dire straits’


Water supply problems compound issues at Helen Joseph Hospital


Charlotte Maxeke debacle places ‘enormous load’ on Helen Joseph Hospital


Selfless doctors should be rewarded, not punished, for doing their jobs




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