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'They were very lucky': Fire truck's delay came close to costing lives

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Sun, 29 May 2022, 3:41pm
It is the second Auckland fire within days where firefighters on the scene say that delays compromised operations. Photo / NZME
It is the second Auckland fire within days where firefighters on the scene say that delays compromised operations. Photo / NZME

'They were very lucky': Fire truck's delay came close to costing lives

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Sun, 29 May 2022, 3:41pm

By Phil Pennington, RNZ 

A fire officer in charge at a blaze at an Auckland apartment block today says a delay in getting there could have ended up with two people trapped. 

The two residents got out, suffering minor burns or singed hair, but the three-storey apartment in Parnell was gutted. 

Sulu Devoe said his pump truck had to come from City station six or seven minutes away, because the Parnell pumper that is one minute away was out of action due to lack of staff. 

Fire and Emergency denied there was any delay. 

But on his way back to the fire scene this morning, Devoe told RNZ that if the two residents had been stuck inside during the initial response, no hoses could have started and no firefighters could have got into the building until his pump truck got there. 

"They were very lucky. 

"There's only one entry and exit point. Where the fire was, and they got out just in time - another minute or two and they hadn't exited the apartment, we would have had to make entry to try to drag or bring them out." 

The delay getting there "caused significant damage to the property, there's no two ways about that", Devoe said. 

Fire and Emergency said two trucks from the Parnell station arrived within six minutes of the 111 call. 

"This is well within the standard," region manager Ron Devlin said in a statement to RNZ. 

"On arrival, crews found a well involved fire on the ground floor. 

"One of the trucks stationed at Parnell which responded to the incident had been moved there as part of our contingency planning to cover for a Parnell truck which was unavailable." 

Devoe told RNZ he stood by his account that he was the first officer on the scene. 

It is the second Auckland fire within days where firefighters on the scene have told RNZ that delays compromised operations. 

The first gutted a big jewellery business in Takanini last week. A firefighter was injured and remains in hospital. 

Firefighters said a specialist big ladder-truck - an aerial - had to come from 20km away to that fire, instead of 9km away, because the closer truck was off the road being serviced. 

Professional Firefighters' Union Auckland secretary Martin Campbell said the delays "can have major implications on people's lives, safety, not to mention property damage". 

Fire and Emergency also denied there was any delay getting to the Takanini fire. 

A third fire, in Wellington in February, and its subsequent investigation triggered claims FENZ was whitewashing problems, which the agency has denied. 

The union has accused Fire and Emergency of letting the fleet get too old, so that breakdowns are increasing, and of inadequate staffing hampering operations. 

FENZ has rejected both claims. 

Chief executive Kerry Gregory on Thursday accused the union of using "alarmist language" around staffing. 

"We've got enough staff to ensure that we provide the service that we need to New Zealand," Gregory told RNZ. 

But Campbell, speaking yesterday, said there were genuine gaps in the fleet, and Takanini illustrated that. 

"What this is showing ... is that our officers and firefighters are having to consider the state of the fleet, including the constant unavailability of specialist trucks, to make critical fire ground decisions," he said. 

At the apartment fire today, the residents had opened a garage door, suffered "flashback" then called 111, Devoe said. 

A big aerial from the Parnell station got there but was hamstrung, said the Auckland local union president. 

"They don't have the crew and don't have back-up. 

"And they don't have water," Devoe said. 

"So, they wouldn't have been able to go in, would have had to wait for us City crew to arrive there, to effect the rescue" had it been needed. 

"Fire spreads and builds. That fire can double, you know, within a minute, and within three minutes. 

"Our work is time-critical." 

Had a pump truck been available to come from Parnell "it would have prevented ... significantly, the amount of damage", Devoe added. 

Parnell station could have been better staffed if people had been called back from leave, as the union had discussed with management, but this was refused "for reasons probably of cost", he claimed. 

The union did not want staff called back either. 

"But over this last few months we've been short-staffed all this time. And we said: 'Well, we need to put staff [there]' for exactly this reason that we had this fire today at Parnell." 

At the Takanini fire in mid-May, Papatoetoe station's aerial was off the road, so one came from Ellerslie, double the distance away. 

"That meant that firefighters had to adapt their strategies and tactics to fight the fire," Campbell said, relaying to RNZ the concerns of two firefighters. 

It could not be said categorically that this led to more damage, but it did mean the current FENZ Level Two investigation into how a firefighter was injured must consider the delay's impact on that incident, Campbell said. 

"We just can't automatically rule it out just because it's inconvenient to Fire and Emergency." 

FENZ said it had "no evidence to suggest there were any outstanding issues" at Takanini. 

The aerial went out on the "first alarm, when an aerial is usually deployed on the second alarm". 

"It arrived about the same time as the unavailable aerial would have arrived if dispatched as normal on the second alarm," FENZ regional manager Ross Devlin said. 

Campbell called this "smoke and mirrors" because aerials deploy straight away to fires at commercial premises. 

However, Devlin said the response was "best practice". 

The Papatoetoe aerial was undergoing a substantial service as part of routine fleet maintenance, he said. 

FENZ's investigation – which will include union input – would not examine the firefighting itself, Devlin added. 

Earlier this week, a frontline investigator into a house fire in Wellington, where an aerial broke down, accused FENZ of trying to rewrite a completed Level Two inquiry report that was "scathing" of fleet management. 

Reports from the day showed the breakdown exposed firefighters and the aerial to greater risk from heat – a cowling partly melted – and slowed them down, but managers said there was no serious risk. 

FENZ said it was inappropriate for investigator Joe Stanley to speak out.