BEATEN BY THE HEAT

Fire­fight­ers ‘fall asleep on lad­der’

The New Zealand Herald - - Front Page - Natalie Akoorie

Be­cause we were not re­lieved, we couldn’t get to the can­teen for any food or drink. Se­nior fire­fighter

Two fire­fight­ers were so ex­hausted dur­ing the SkyCity con­ven­tion cen­tre fire they fell asleep at the top of a 32m-high lad­der while man­ning hoses to bat­tle the blaze.

That’s ac­cord­ing to the New Zealand Pro­fes­sional Fire­fight­ers Union, which also said an­other two fell asleep driv­ing home af­ter their shifts ended.

Fire and Emer­gency New Zealand is in­ves­ti­gat­ing and re­gion man­ager Ron Devlin said the or­gan­i­sa­tion was aware of fa­tigue re­ports.

But Devlin said the safety of fire­fight­ers was para­mount and at the fore­front of all de­ci­sion-mak­ing at a fire.

In a com­plaint to the union about man­age­ment of the fire, seen by the Her­ald, a se­nior fire­fighter de­scribed how his col­leagues were so ex­hausted from a lack of rest and food that they fell asleep eight storeys up the lad­der on the first night of the fire.

It took 150 fire­fight­ers four days to put out the New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­tre fire, and 27 mil­lion litres of wa­ter were poured on the blaze at the $700 mil­lion build­ing in cen­tral Auck­land.

The com­plaint al­leges that fire­fight­ers were only pro­vided re­lief af­ter a se­nior fire­fighter re­alised a crew mem­ber had fallen asleep up the lad­der and an­other re­fused to go back up — prompt­ing him to shut down the op­er­a­tion.

By that stage some of his crew had been ro­tat­ing through shifts at the top of the lad­der with­out enough breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus for more than 12 hours, the com­plaint al­leges.

“Be­cause we were not re­lieved, we couldn’t get to the can­teen for any food or drink and no pro­vi­sions other than some wa­ter was brought around to that sec­tor.”

At one point a fire­fighter left the scene and bought a large amount of food at his own ex­pense to feed the crew, the com­plaint said.

“It was only af­ter we shut the ae­rial [ap­pli­ance] down that things started to hap­pen as they couldn’t af­ford to lose the crane.

“A sec­ond fire­fighter has since con­firmed to me that he also fell asleep at the head of the lad­der.”

Other com­plaints seen by the

Her­ald back up the fa­tigue con­cerns.

A sta­tion of­fi­cer said he wit­nessed staff “ab­so­lutely shat­tered and fall­ing asleep on the side­walk”, in the com­mand unit and in­side fire trucks.

“... I be­lieve we put the crews’ health and well­be­ing at crit­i­cal risk.

“The turntable lad­der, for ex­am­ple, was po­si­tioned at full ex­ten­sion and tired, fa­tigued staff could have eas­ily made a mis­take caus­ing cat­a­strophic in­juries.”

The sta­tion of­fi­cer said at one point he found an un­manned ae­rial ap­pli­ance and it was two hours be­fore the crew, who were hav­ing a break, were found.

“It soon be­came ap­par­ent there were no re­lief crews for the ae­rial [ap­pli­ances] and the pub­lic sat and watched a $700m build­ing burn while no­body had any idea where the

crew was.” Con­cerns also in­cluded off-duty fire­fight­ers not be­ing called to the fire, there were no proper toi­let fa­cil­i­ties, han­dovers were poor and FENZ rules around how many and which fire trucks re­spond to a high­rise build­ing with sprin­klers, given the con­ven­tion cen­tre’s sprin­klers were not com­plete.

NZPFU Auck­land pres­i­dent Sulu Devoe and sec­re­tary Martin Camp­bell said the union raised con­cerns dur­ing a de­brief with FENZ com­man­ders on Wed­nes­day.

He called the fire­fight­ers asleep up the lad­der an “ex­treme case of fa­tigue” that was “very alarm­ing”.

“We do ac­knowl­edge that we have a 14-hour shift that we work but we’re not ex­pected to be per­form­ing hard, phys­i­cal work for the en­tire 14 hours.”

He claimed only three fire­fight­ers were qual­i­fied to op­er­ate the cherry picker that night, and two were needed at any one time, mean­ing they couldn’t get a break with­out back-up. “There’s go­ing to be a lot of lessons learned from this we be­lieve.”

Devlin told the Her­ald FENZ was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the re­ports of fa­tigue but every­one played a part in mon­i­tor­ing ex­haus­tion.

“Our fire­fight­ers do an amaz­ing and brave job in some dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances.

“Every­one on the in­ci­dent ground has a part to play in mon­i­tor­ing their own fa­tigue and keep­ing them­selves and each other safe.”

Dur­ing the SkyCity re­sponse, crews were ro­tated ev­ery five or six hours where pos­si­ble, given meal breaks, food and wa­ter, and toi­lets were iden­ti­fied for FENZ per­son­nel, he said.

“A fire on a scale like the Auck­land fire re­quired a lot of re­source to ex­tin­guish.

“At the peak of the fire there were more than 130 fire­fight­ers work­ing to put it out.”

Devlin said FENZ had enough fire­fight­ers trained in op­er­at­ing ae­rial ap­pli­ances.

“At any in­ci­dent, we reg­u­larly re­view re­sourc­ing needs. At the SkyCity fire ad­di­tional ae­rial ap­pli­ance oper­a­tors were called to duty as needed.”

He said as with any ma­jor event, FENZ would be re­view­ing its re­sponse and would take any lessons into con­sid­er­a­tion.

“We’re com­mit­ted to re­solv­ing any is­sues raised from this in­ci­dent and iden­ti­fy­ing any ar­eas which could be im­proved for fu­ture.”

Mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the fire are con­tin­u­ing.

Photo / Dean Pur­cell

Crews bat­tle the blaze in the roof of SkyCity’s In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­tre last month.

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