Auckland housing growth puts water supply for firefighters at risk, FENZ says

7:59 am on 19 June 2023
Fire damage at the Manukau development, from the FENZ case study.

Fire damage at a Manukau development, from a FENZ case study included below. Photo: Supplied/ Fire and Emergency NZ

Firefighters have warned Auckland Council the city's rapid growth means they sometimes run low on water to put out fires.

They also cannot get their trucks close to burning houses in high-density projects where buildings are packed close together.

Documents show Fire and Emergency has made multiple pleas to councils for help, saying behind closed doors that the government has overlooked the growing and serious problems.

"Demands on water to accommodate growth means there is not always sufficient water for firefighting," FENZ told Auckland Council in a recent presentation.

Recent intensification had resulted in "inadequate reticulated water supply with insufficient pressure for firefighting to serve development".

Carparking was filling streets and blocking fire trucks, or some roads left less than 4m of width to set up a fire truck - too narrow - and gaps of just 2 - 3m between houses was pushing up the level of destruction.

"Construction across our region is increasing the risk of fire," FENZ said.

"Intensification and infill housing is challenging traditional access."

Many recent developments were non-compliant but got consent anyway, FENZ said last September.

Or they were compliant, pointing to problems with the Building Code or the Act.

"Recent government changes to support growth", such as 2022's housing intensification laws, "do not consider the needs of emergency response in their objectives or outcomes", FENZ added.

Water supply was vital, but the guidelines on making sure there was enough remained voluntary.

Case study

The agency detailed a case study from April 2022 that summed up all the problems.

A Manukau house under construction was destroyed, and heat from it severely damaged three homes built in closely around it.

Read the presentation: FENZ case study of Manukau House fire (17MB)

Firefighters were forced to drag hoses up a 40m-long driveway that was too narrow for a truck.

"Firefighters accessed the fire by foot ... and by breaking down a fence of a neighbouring property," FENZ's 14-page slideshow said.

They got only half the 2000L-a-minute water flow required. The nearest hydrant was twice as far away (270m) as the ideal maximum of 135m, once hoses zigzagged corners.

They found out later the mains supply had two valves nearly closed.

The closed valves "were the cause of the lower water pressure the firefighters experienced. When we investigated after the fire, our crews opened them up again", Watercare told RNZ.

Only authorised people should touch valves, but "people do sometimes close them themselves - for example, to stop water flow on a private leak", it said, adding it had an audit programme for more than 100,000 valves across Auckland.

FENZ had stated Watercare approved the Manukau development's water connections even though the engineer's application did not include evidence "the water supply would be adequate".

But Watercare said the evidence was not needed as, normally, with the valves open, the neighbourhood had enough water pressure "and no capacity constraints in the area".

Watercare told RNZ in May, when asked who checked hydrants: "We have sufficient water pressure and volume available for firefighting across Auckland, and all hydrants are in good condition."

However, checks on hydrants are very patchy across the country.

Twice as hot

At the Manukau fire, the home downwind of the burning building site had its top floor badly damaged.

"The level of destruction was due to wind direction, and short separation distance (1 - 3m between dwellings)," FENZ said.

The fire at the boundary was estimated as twice as hot as the Building Code allows.

But the infill development was all entirely legal, including the boundary requirements; 1m from boundary, 2m between buildings. The design was approved, but "development design created risk of fire spreading", FENZ told the council.

They were already experiencing problems on long sites, getting to houses at the rear, it said.

Sprinklers could save many houses, but if they had them that might exhaust supply capacity, it added.

Fire access problems in Auckland, from a FENZ presentation to Auckland Council in 2022.

A drawing showing fire trucks at 1, 2 and 3 and their struggle to get to a fire that damaged four homes in Auckland, from a FENZ presentation to Auckland Council in 2022. Photo: Supplied/ Fire and Emergency NZ

The problems are compounded by firefighters taking slightly longer to get to fires, which FENZ puts down to traffic jams and urban sprawl, as RNZ has reported.

Also, intensification creates more building sites, and they present higher risks - about five percent of the structure fires in Auckland are at construction sites.

FENZ went on to ask Auckland Council to be allowed a say on denser housing and other law changes, backing that up with a letter to the council chief executive in May 2022, and a submission to the ongoing Unitary Plan review into densification last September.

Read the submission: FENZ Submission on notified Plan Changes 78-80 to Auckland Unitary Plan - housing water, 28/09/2022 (4MB)

Read the letter: FENZ letter to Auckland Council asking to be able to make more input, May 2022 (1.2MB)

"Resource consents process, building consents process and bylaw enforcement creates [sic] gaps in ensuring adequate water supply to new developments," FENZ said.

It has also written to all other councils about working more closely with them in light of housing and transport reforms changing the landscape.

Lack of power

However, powers are lacking all around.

FENZ cannot force anyone to adopt its Code of Practice that sets water supply minimums. A Watercare bylaw mentions it, but says only that it "may" require a connection to adhere to the code.

Read the documents:

New Zealand Fire Service Firefighting Water Supplies Code of Practice - SNZ PAS 4509: 2008 (4MB)

Water Supply and Wastewater Network Bylaw 2015 - as at 25 November 2021 (500KB)

Plus, councils "cannot make provisions under RMA for firefighters or emergency response access", FENZ said.

"The difficult access increases the time for fire to burn, increasing the heat radiation in a confined area.

"This is resulting in development that is inaccessible or takes significantly longer to access."

Auckland Council plans and places general manager John Duguid said their hands were tied in many respects, such as around water supply, because that came under the Building Code or the Building Act, and MBIE's purview.

"Certainly council has pushed for some significant changes to the building code ... in terms of building design issues, and also ... water supply for firefighting, access of firefighting to dwellings," Duguid said.

They made recent submissions to the ministry.

"Some of the key issues that council raised have not been addressed at this stage by MBIE," he said.

That includes the basic problem of houses being allowed to be built much closer together, and higher.

A push for tougher fire ratings - burn time - by using less combustible materials, along with other fire protection moves, [

got knocked back at MBIE just last month], though the ministry said it would have another go at it.

Fire regulations are acknowledged by MBIE to be lagging reality, when it comes to intensification. However, that has not stopped infill housing proceeding apace. The lag of law can be seen in that Auckland is months away from settling on any unitary plan changes in a bid to catch up at least a little.

MBIE replies

MBIE said it had introduced fire rule changes to require interconnected smoke alarms and better exit paths from houses, which would come in gradually over a 12-month period from this November.

Other changes did not make it through.

"Submissions generally supported the intent of other proposed changes ... but there was no clear consensus on the technical details. We are continuing to work with the sector to progress further work," the ministry said on Sunday.

FENZ calls for land to be allocated for fire stations

Fire stations in Auckland, from the FENZ presentation to Auckland Council in 2022.

Fire stations in Auckland, from the FENZ presentation to Auckland Council in 2022. Photo: Supplied/ Fire and Emergency NZ

FENZ in its three-pronged argument to Auckland Council, also wanted its help in designating land for fire stations as it does not have that power.

Duguid said they had been doing that.

FENZ said in a statement to RNZ that it had made a submission on the unitary plan changes and was working with the council.

Read the statement here: FENZ statement to Auckland Council on unitary plan changes, 2022 (9MB)

Talks were carrying on about it being included as a key partner in the implementation of the council's water strategy, and it had won recent acknowledgement of its concerns about narrow, jammed streets from Auckland Transport in its May 2023 parking strategy, FENZ said.

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