Failing S.Africa: As fire services buckle, Discovery Health looks to private sector

Discovery Insure has launched its own fire service, complete with signature blue fire trucks, in partnership with Advanced EMS (which owns private fire service Fire Ops SA).

Two branded fire engines and some response vehicles will be added to the existing Fire Ops fleet, which numbers around 20 vehicles (not all trucks). The Fire Force service will be available “primarily” to Discovery Insure clients in the greater Johannesburg area. It will be able to assist the city in emergencies.

What was left unsaid in Monday’s announcement and briefing is that the City of Joburg metro (in particular) is facing a crisis with fire engines.

It currently has a fleet of 12 fire engines and two tankers operating across its 30 fire stations. However, the number available on any given day is far lower than a dozen as many of these old vehicles are constantly undergoing repairs.

Notably, in the fire at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital last year, the city had to rely on fire trucks from both Ekurhuleni and the City of Tshwane.

The city will add 13 large fire trucks to its fleet over the next year, with another R200 million allocated in 2023/24 to purchase a further 15 fire trucks. At that point, the 30 fire stations across the city will finally be at the point where each has at least one active vehicle.

Fire Ops is one of a handful of large private firefighting operations that have sprung up across the country in response to creaking (and sometimes collapsing) fire services across the country.

In many smaller towns, the situation is completely dire. Some have no fire engines at all.

Logical move

One ought not to be surprised that Discovery is funding this venture. As an insurer, its main economic incentive is to drive claims down, as these cost it money.

A major house fire could claim the building, all its contents and, dare we say it, lives as well. Just the first two of these would result in millions of rands in claims from a single incident.

If the customer was a Discovery Life policyholder as well, and were to lose their life in the fire, this number becomes very large, very quickly.

Discovery Insure CEO Anton Ossip flagged to TimesLive that: “There have been three major fires” across its “client base in the past 10 days.”

“On Thursday a fire in Douglasdale claimed a life,” he added.

This move will make a substantial difference.

In effect, Discovery’s actuaries are taking a very well-calculated bet that funding this response service will mean a better underwriting result.

Read: Why Joburg’s roads are in such a state

In simple terms, every R1 its spending on this intervention, will result in significantly more than R1 in return (as a result of lower claims across its Joburg customer base).

It’s the same reason that, together with Dialdirect (Telesure), it funded ‘Pothole Patrol’. The only difference with filling potholes on behalf of the state is that all road users benefit directly. (Discovery and Dialdirect get the added marketing/branding boost.)

How it works, and the cost

Once an emergency call is received, Fire Ops will dispatch a “rapid intervention vehicle that is fitted with an ultra-high-pressure (UHP) pump system, while mobilising additional resources”.

“The UHP unit can be connected to a garden hose and allows a very effective first-attack against house fires, car fires and other smaller fires.”

The two Fire Force fire trucks will be based in Rosebank and Midrand, with response vehicles at Fire Ops’s four other depots across Johannesburg.

Fire Ops charges residential customers (‘subscribers’) a fee of R690 per year for its emergency response service. When a fire is attended to under its service, the client is billed, with, says Fire Ops, “the bill forwarded to the insurer who will cover the costs in full”. Fees for agricultural holdings are R4 500 a year.

Expect the aggregate amount being paid to Advanced EMS by Discovery for ‘coverage’ of its clients in the metro to be far lower than this (on a per customer basis).


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