SkyCity blaze ‘too complex’ for unit on site as a command location

6:59 pm on 6 October 2020

Fire and Emergency New Zealand has released an external report into the massive SkyCity blaze - described as a scale rarely experienced in this country.

Aerial view of the roof of the International Convention Centre fire near SkyCity.

Aerial view of the roof of the International Convention Centre fire near SkyCity on 24 October 2019. Photo: Twitter/Phil Goff

Nearly a year since Auckland's under-construction convention centre became the scene of a herculean 10-day operation involving 150 firefighters, Australian counterparts conclude firefighters could not have prevented the extensive loss and damage.

However it recommended a raft of changes to Fire and Emergency operations, including its shift lengths and rotations and the training of incident controllers.

Investigators believe the SkyCity fire became "too complex" for the Auckland Command Unit on site to handle.

It said firefighters needed better access to plans and the service needed to know about problems with building construction.

Plenary Theatre main floor, at the back of the theatre you can see the raked seating. Above you can see part of the collapsed roof (which includes gibing and other materials) but you can also see that the physical roof structure is still intact.

Taken at the time, the Plenary Theatre main floor, at the back of the theatre you can see the raked seating. Above you can see part of the collapsed roof (which includes gibing and other materials) but you can also see that the physical roof structure is still intact. Photo: Fire and Emergency New Zealand

The blaze began when the flame of a workers' blow torch accidentally snagged the inner cardboard tubing in a roll of roofing membrane, before strong winds fanned the flames in the roof.

Australia's fire and emergency council praised how firefighters rose to the challenge.

Fire and Emergency National Commander Kerry Gregory was also proud of that, though he was aware of room for improvement, in the way the organisation prepared for large scale events.

"We commissioned the report because we want to learn from these types of incidents. It was a really highly challenging incident that was obviously quite complex," he said.

"What I was really pleased about was that it really found that our people drew on our expert knowledge around firefighting in urban environments, and really managed the incident safely. But there was a couple of key points that I took out of it. It had areas where we need to reinforce our training."

The report noted people were placed in command centres without the specific training they needed, and suggested a larger command centre should have been set up off-site.

It raised concerns about 24 hour shifts worked by some firefighters, including aerial operators who worked until they could no longer operate safely.

Damage from the SkyCity Convention Centre fire can be seen on the roof.

Damage from the SkyCity Convention Centre fire can be seen on the roof at the time. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Grey Lynn station officer Martin Campbell, who is the Auckland local secretary of the Professional Firefighters Union, agreed rostering was a problem.

'We had the commanders doing six hour rotations and firefighters doing either a 10 hour or a 14 hour rotation. That created a little bit of confusion as sometimes there'd be multiple commanders in charge of the firefighters during their shifts ... and there'd also be a little animosity there because the firefighters could see the commanders were being rotated every six hours, refreshed every six hours," he said.

The report made 11 recommendations, suggesting Fire and Emergency set up command units and review how it manages high-risk buildings.

It recommended training more aerial firefighters and ensuring incident controllers have adequate training.

Fire and Emergency said it accepted the recommendations - and Gregory said it had set up a working group to implement them.

Already, he said nine more people had been trained in aerial firefighting. When it came to firefighters working 24 hours non-stop on the fire ground, he said that "won’t happen again".

"There's a lot of different things that are either partially in train or we've started work around them, including what gaps there are in our training to address."

Damage from the SkyCity Convention Centre fire can be seen on the roof.

Damage from the SkyCity Convention Centre fire can be seen on the roof at the time. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

In a statement, the general manager of the company building the convention centre - Fletcher Construction - welcomed the findings, and expressed gratitude for sustained efforts to fight the fire.

Gary Walker said the construction industry was determined to learn from the fire - and this review would help.

In April the fire was found to be accidental.

The roof of the under-construction centre was significantly damaged in the blaze that erupted in October last year, and took 10 days to fully extinguish.

More than eight million litres of water used to tackle the huge blaze ended up in the carpark, where it rose to 1.5 metres and submerged about 100 cars.

During the fire, Auckland's CBD came to a standstill with roads closed around the convention centre, most central businesses shut, and people were asked to stay away from the billowing smoke.

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