Firefighter who raced in full gear says it’s ‘not as hot as inside a burning house

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In memory of his fallen colleagues, a firefighter from Randburg completed the 947 Ride Joburg bike race last Sunday in his full uniform, with his helmet on and an oxygen bottle weighing 21.5kg on his back.“Riding like this is actually not as hot as inside a house fire,” Nkosi Mzolo (34) said. “I could drink water and cool myself, something the guys in the Bank of Lisbon fire couldn’t do.”

Three firefighters died on September 5 2018 in a fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD. Simphiwe Moropane, Mduduzi Ndlovu and Khathutshelo Muedi were Mzolo’s friends.

This year was the third time he rode in his firefighting suit to honour the memory of his colleagues and to raise awareness about increasing attacks on emergency service workers.

“We are being attacked and robbed while providing a critical service to the public. We have lost colleagues in these attacks,” Mzolo said.

Just last month, paramedic Phumzile Dlamini (40) was killed in Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal. His colleague was critically injured when shots were fired into a house while they were responding to an emergency.

Mzolo survived a similar attack:

Late last year, I was in an ambulance in Zandspruit, where we had to pick up a patient. While we were waiting, a man leaned out of a window and aimed a firearm at us. My colleague and I jumped out of the door and ran away.

As a firefighter, he has suffered burns and blisters even when wearing his protective gear. “When you see a person on the other side of a fire, it’s not easy to turn your back on them. The firefighter instinct and adrenaline kick in.”

Mzolo, who obtained a bachelor of technology degree in fire technology from Tshwane University of Technology this year, is now the acting shift commander at the Hunters Hill Fire Station in Randburg. He lives with his partner, a son aged eight and two daughters aged seven and one, in Fleurhof, west of Johannesburg.

With a smile, Mzolo says:

At school, my son boasts that his father is a superhero. I tell him I’m the same as everyone else. The girls are also proud. They’ve visited the fire station several times.

He finished the 97km route last Sunday in five hours and 35 minutes – his best time yet. This was his sixth 947 Joburg Ride.

Eight years before his colleagues died, Mzolo and his partner lost their son, who was born prematurely in 2010. “I had the same feeling [of grief] both times. It’s a feeling you can’t compare with anything else. My colleagues and I fought house fires together. That’s why I decided that if the bell rang again, I would go out for them.”

When City Press met Mzolo late on Wednesday afternoon at the Florida Fire Station on the West Rand, he had just returned from spending the day in the water with students at a firefighting school, where he works as an instructor.Mzolo regularly participates in canoe competitions. “Before Covid-19, it was every second week and now it’s once a month.”

He has also completed 17 Dusi Canoe Marathons, which are held between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. He has always finished in the top 50 – his best place was 16th.

He can now apply for the position of fire chief at any fire station in the world. However, as he is only 34, he first has to gain experience as a shift commander, which includes at least three years in the position of regional station commander.

Mzolo grew up in the uMkhambathini Valley in KwaZulu-Natal and arrived in Johannesburg when he was 18. He joined the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club, where he drew the attention of Brad Fisher, the founder of SCARC and ADreach, an advertising and marketing solutions provider.

Mzolo said:

Brad kept telling me that rowing is a sport and I can’t make a living out of it. He wanted to know what I was going to do with my life. One day, a fire engine drove by during a conversation; I blurted out: ‘I want to be one of those guys.’

The next morning, Fisher’s personal assistant called Mzolo and told him he was registered for training as a firefighter. He arrived at the Rosebank Fire Station as a volunteer and knew that’s where he belonged.

“I was mad about it [firefighting] from the beginning. I could not see myself doing anything else.”

He started studying, was permanently employed and did short courses for fire and rescue technicians.

“You need a certain amount of work experience between each of the 16 courses, so I worked as a volunteer on my days off to gain the necessary experience sooner.”

These days, he is SCARC’s head coach, safety officer and race organiser. And his bike is now stored away while he waits for another “challenge for body and soul; something that’s not eezy peezy. I can’t sit still. I try to push myself to the limit.”


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