The Wits occupational health and safety department prioritises the wellbeing of staff and students.  

After the fires that ravaged University of Cape Town (UCT)Wits’s emergency response team has been re-examining aspects of the emergency response plan, to reduce the chances of suffering a similar fate due to negligence or complacency.   

Tshepho Mpeake, the emergency response coordinator at Wits, was asked to carry out a more recent review that includes fire protection inspections of all the university’s buildings. Over the past six years, the plan has been reviewed annually, with the last review taking place on March 30.  

According to Jonathan de Villiers, director of Wits University’s occupational health and safety and the environment department, the risks posed to Wits University are not the same as those facing UCT.  

De Villiers said that while a fire is the most likely major emergency to take place, the risk of one breaking out is most prominent in the laboratories across campuses: “In laboratories they make use of solvents and flammable substances which, if not used properly (or exposed to an ignition source), can ignite. 

Residences are also a particular point of concern in the colder months, according to De Villiers, because of the use of heaters, which are sometimes left unattended. “People using heaters must only do so while taking the necessary precautionary measures to ensure they are not too near combustible or flammable substances, and that the heater must be switched off when unattended.” 

The main reason for the spread of the fire at UCT, according to statements by Table Mountain National Park’s fire manager, Philip Prins, was the presence of combustible vegetation in the surrounding area. The fire broke out on April 18 and led to the destruction of UCT’s historic Jagger Library, and the evacuation of UCT staff and students from the campus. 

Speaking on the potential risk libraries could hold should a fire break out, considering the amount of paper in the buildings, Wits University librarian Paiki Muswazi said they have full confidence in current security and safety systems, implemented to prevent risks of any kind.   

Muswazi also noted that the university’s move to an online academic programme has led to more students making use of online library resources and services. He said while the online resources are extensive, there are some archives that are irreplaceable.  

“These are mainly the historical papers and Africana materials in William Cullen Library comprising archives of influential organisations, labour movements, personalities and books, plus smaller similar collections in such libraries as architecture, education and law.” 

He said the university has an ongoing digitisation programme that aims to preserve some of this information. 

Basil Mugwena, director of campus housing and residence life, said they have established relationships with accredited service providers, and he believes that in the case of a major emergency students would be provided for in one way or another. He was, however, unable to provide further information at the time of publication.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Two students chat near one of the emergency assembly and fire hydrant points on East Campus. Photo: Rebecca Kgabo