Dirty work un­cov­ers fire’s se­crets

DAILY GRIND Fire can be dev­as­tat­ing and to the un­trained eye its causes can be mys­ti­fy­ing. But not to Rus­sell Dick­son. Re­porter Emma Whit­taker sat down with the fire risk man­age­ment of­fi­cer who spends his days in­ves­ti­gat­ing some of Auck­land’s most se­ri­ous

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

Ev­ery fire tells a story and it’s Rus­sell Dick­son’s job to find out how it goes.

‘‘I jok­ingly say men, women and chil­dren are the big­gest causes of fires,’’ he says.

‘‘Of­ten they don’t just start by them­selves, but it’s not al­ways ob­vi­ous how they start. We do the de­tec­tive work.’’

Ev­ery in­ves­ti­ga­tion starts with those in­volved be­ing in­ter­viewed.

‘‘Peo­ple’s emo­tions do run high, es­pe­cially when there have been fa­tal­i­ties, and some­times they are feel­ing guilty and don’t want to tell you things.

‘‘Af­ter a while you learn to read body lan­guage and the en­vi­ron­ment.’’

The next step is the scene ex­am­i­na­tion. The first goal is find­ing out where the fire started.

‘‘We start at the front door, of­ten on our hands and knees, just scrap­ing through clear­ing the floor look­ing for all sorts of ev­i­dence. It’s a dirty job.

‘‘Just by read­ing the fire pat­terns you can nor­mally pin down where it started to one cor­ner. Ev­ery fire tells a story.’’

Hi-tech gad­gets like a tool that tests the air for ac­cel­er­ants can help point to the cause.

The Fire Ser­vice is some­thing of a fam­ily busi­ness for the cen­tral city based in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

He joined the One­hunga vol­un­teer fire bri­gade in 1967 and later be­came a ca­reer fire­fighter be­fore turn­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tion work in 2000.

His fa­ther Alan joined the same bri­gade in 1936 and ded­i­cated most of his life to it.

A to­tal of 13 mem­bers of Mr Dick­son’s fam­ily have been part of the Fire Ser­vice since.

‘‘The in­ves­ti­ga­tion side is a con­tin­u­a­tion of op­er­a­tional stuff. It’s just a way to keep my hand in,’’ Mr Dick­son says. ‘‘I do miss the op­er­a­tional side, but I still go to lots of fires rather than just sit­ting at a desk all day.’’

One of the most chal­leng­ing cases he has in­ves­ti­gated was a mas­sive blaze at the One­hunga Mitre 10 in 2008. The fire re­duced the store to a pile of ash and is be­lieved to have been de­lib­er­ately lit but the ar­son­ist was not caught.

As­bestos in the build­ing made the fight­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing the blaze even more dan­ger­ous.

‘‘All fires are chal­leng­ing, the Mitre 10 one really stands out be­cause of the size of it.

‘‘We just didn’t know where start,’’ he says.

‘‘We went through the whole place and even­tu­ally found the one room where it started.’’

Part of his role as a fire risk man­age­ment of­fi­cer is to help build­ing own­ers im­prove fire safety.

Of­ten as a re­sult of fires he spends time ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple as well.

‘‘We can prac­tise and preach the story as much as we like, but it still amazes me the num­ber of peo­ple who don’t have smoke alarms,’’ he says.

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Photo: JA­SON OXENHAM

Fiery fo­cus: Rus­sell Dick­son is a fire risk man­age­ment of­fi­cer for the New Zealand Fire Ser­vice.

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