1 Dec 2023

'Inadequate' fire safety at Rotorua lodge triggers inspection at other boarding houses

10:08 am on 1 December 2023
Fire alarm on corridor wall.

Council is yet to decide if further actions will be taken over Spa Lodge. File photo Photo: 123RF

Urgent inspections have taken place at Rotorua boarding houses after one was evacuated.

Spa Lodge was ruled an "extremely high fire risk" to occupants and shut down last week.

On Thursday, fire and health inspectors went to three more properties, all of them managed by the operator of Spa Lodge.

The operator rejected that the lodge was dangerous: "That's very wrong," Emilyn Dubouzet of Rotorua told RNZ on Thursday.

"I know my responsibilities, it is what it is," she said.

Rotorua Lakes Council would not say what it found at the other three accommodation properties.

"The purpose of the inspections was to confirm fire safety requirements and evacuation plans were up to date," it said.

It is now preparing a risk report before it decides what to do next.

Council discovered on 16 November that residents at Spa Lodge were being deadbolted in without a key overnight. Four days later, a fire was set on the deck, prompting a second dangerous building notice and evacuation.

Council is yet to decide if further actions will be taken over Spa Lodge.

Dubouzet said: "I am the owner of Spa Lodge ... but I don't want to comment.

"The message is clear," she went on. "I don't want to say anything.

"I know my staff, I know how I operate, that's it, thank you, bye."

Spa Lodge was overlooked for fire checks earlier this year, during a dispute over inspectors' safety.

They had asked for stabproof vests, but Fire and Emergency refused, so few if any inspections were made for months, as RNZ revealed in June.

In April, a flag went up at FENZ about risks at Spa Lodge, but it did not get checked.

Only last week, a fire inspector found many shortcomings that the alarm system - compliant to old standards, so legal - was not up to handling.

"This system relies solely on one of the occupants switching on a manual call point," their report said.

No one switched the alarm on despite several residents emerging early on 20 November on the deck, and seeing a rubbish bin that had been set on fire. Instead, they went back inside.

"As witnessed on CCTV footage of the fire ... occupants ... cannot be relied on to activate the fire alarm system and evacuate the building. Therefore, given the clientele, I do not believe the fire alarm system is adequate for this building," the inspector said.

The "high risk/needs of the clientele, the inoperable handheld firefighting equipment, inadequate fire alarm system and the known behaviour of these occupants during a fire" combined to pose an extreme risk.

The Companies Office register showed Dubouzet was the sole director of Jedi 3000 Ltd, which property records show is the owner of Spa Lodge.

Jedi's website said it had been focused on providing "quality, affordable, convenient and safe accommodation to foreign students" since 2012.

Spa Lodge ranks four out of five on Tripadvisor, with the most recent reviews, from several years ago, ranging from "'this place was really lovely" to ''the most inhabitable, unsafe place I've ever stayed" and "'avoid avoid avoid".

Lakes Council has been in a long-running fight with the government to take more responsibility for short-term and particularly emergency housing.

Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell. File photo Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Mayor Tania Tapsell said it was especially difficult to deal with backpackers that were now being run like boarding houses.

Owners were "put on notice" from these latest inspections, she said.

"At the core of this issue are building owners allowing tenancies to operate that are often at very high rental prices and they do need to be held to account.

"We as a council have been doing that ... because we cannot accept people living in buildings that are not appropriate or safe."

The council has been instrumental in persuading central government to take more responsibility.

MSD said Spa Lodge was not an official "opted-in"  emergency housing provider and was last used for emergency housing in January this year.

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