Loafers Lodge: 111 call-takers short staffed on night of fire

1:55 pm on 19 May 2023
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Some call-takers are struggling with feeling they should have done more during the Loafers Lodge fire, firefighters' union Wellington president Carlos Dempsey says. Photo: 123rf

Emergency call-takers say they were short staffed the night of the fatal Loafers Lodge fire.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) has been offering public reassurances from the very top that it had all the resources it needed to fight the fire

However, a 111 team leader and firefighters' union Wellington president Carlos Dempsey told Morning Report today: "In the control room that night we were short staffed".

"They were talking to people who were trapped, injured, and crying out for help," Dempsey said.

"It was very similar to the sort of calls you took during the Cyclone Gabrielle where people were in need, and we were trying our best to get to them, but it wasn't always possible."

Some call-takers and firefighters were struggling with feeling they should have done more, he said. In addition, at the fire itself, only one large 32m-long-ladder truck was on hand because a second one, housed close-by at Newtown Station, has been broken down for over a year.

FENZ chief chief executive Kerry Gregory said yesterday: "I can reassure you, Fire and Emergency had enough crews, and specialist appliances to respond to the Newtown fire."

Not having a second 32m-ladder truck did not detract from fighting the fire, Gregory said - but firefighters who were there said it changed their tactics a lot.

Flames seen in the top storey of the Loafers Lodge accommodation in Adelaide Road, Newtown, Wellington.

Firefighters tackling the fatal Loafers Lodge blaze. Photo: Supplied / Axel Dann

Emergency communications centres are grappling with longstanding vacancies. The Wellington team got backup for the Loafers Lodge fire from other communications centres - primarily Auckland and Christchurch - but staff did not get a break, Dempsey said.

"People worked that night without taking adequate breaks and being able to go, just leave the floor and just decompress. They were there for the duration, basically."

He came on in the early morning with the next team, "who then did the same thing". "Awful jobs like this, they really put that extra toll on to all our people."

Gregory acknowledged yesterday there was a toll and said FENZ would support people. "Our firefighters, executive officers, and 111 call takers and dispatchers who were involved in this incident are hurting."

He also said the fleet was too old and they were getting new trucks - saying as a consequence, sometimes a truck would not get to a fire, but adding Loafers got the resources needed.

Dempsey previously spoke out after Gabrielle about what call-takers went through.

At this week's fire, they also had to deal with a broken down fire truck.

"We had ... a fire truck that broke down before heading off to this [Loafers] job. It was a support vehicle," Dempsey said.

"But we were short staffed that night and this ... breakdown took someone off the phones to call a mechanic. So we're already busy, under the pump, and then we have to carry out other actions like that."

There were more than 30 fire trucks at the fire, but only two ladder trucks - a 17m and a 32m one.

Dempsey told RNZ the national complement of 111 call-takers had had major gaps for a long time, including on the busiest night they ever faced, when Cyclone Gabrielle hit.

He expected it would take another year at least to recruit to fill the vacancies.

Without an operable 32m-ladder truck at Newtown near Loafers Lodge, a large ladder truck instead came from further away in Thorndon, taking an extra nine minutes.

The 17m ladder truck from Newtown was already there, getting water on the fire.

However, Professional Firefighters Union president Ian Wright, who was in the command centre at the fire, said tactics were "inhibited". Firefighters "were hampered by not having the 32-metre aerial".

"We'd have been able to do a lot more, and a lot more accurate firefighting, and we would have been able to reach a lot more of the building with the appliance that should have been there," Wright said.

"I'm not going to comment on whether, you know, lives could have been saved."

That was a matter for the FENZ investigation into its operations, he said. The investigation team must include a qualified fire investigator from the union.

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