SkyCity fire: Are emergency response units under-resourced?

The AM Show 24/10/2019

A professional firefighter claims the SkyCity blaze could have quickly been contained but crucial fire trucks were out of service, at the mechanic.

The massive inferno at the SkyCity convention centre in central Auckland burned for nearly two days, with large plumes of toxic smoke being funnelled into the air, causing chaos for commuters and nearby residents.

It's now unlikely the $700 million convention centre will hold the 2021 APEC meeting, with fire and water damage meaning parts of the building will have to be scrapped and rebuilt, pushing the opening date for the centre back months - if not years.

But Martin Campbell, the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union Auckland local secretary, told The AM Show on Thursday the fire could have been quickly contained if proper resources had been immediately available.

He says only one of three Auckland heavy aerial appliances - the tall cherry-picker-type fire trucks - were available to firefighters immediately at the time the fire began. 

"The aerial appliance that would normally have responded first to this incident from the city fire station, about a minute up the road, unfortunately has been out of service sitting at the side of the road at Mangere because of a serious design flaw that means it's not safe to use," Campbell said.

"The other aerial appliance at the Parnell station, approximately 10 minutes away from the incident, that was in parts at our brigade workshop being worked on. 

"They had to quickly try and find mechanics to call back and reassemble that appliance to respond to the incident. It still took them two hours to try and do that."

Martin Campbell. Photo credit: The AM Show.

In the meantime, an aerial appliance was called up from Hamilton - about an hour-and-a-half away.

"That has left the Hamilton region without an aerial appliance of its own," Campbell said.

"I was informed last night that Hamilton has asked Auckland for their aerial back due to concerns that their area is no longer covered. But we can't afford to send the Hamilton aerial back at this stage because its aerial is the one helping to contain the fire and stop it spreading."

The firefighter said it was his view that if all three aerial appliances had been immediately available, more water could have been shot into the fire quickly.

"We could have contained the fire and stopped it spreading into the large fire it has now become, which could possibly cost tens of millions of dollars, not to mention the disruption it has caused the whole central business district through traffic congestion and the huge toxic plumes of smoke now throughout downtown Auckland."

But Ron Devlin, Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) regional manager, told Newshub that extra aerial appliances arriving earlier wouldn't have changed how the fire was fought.

"This is a complicated fire to fight. In this instance, the heavy aerial appliances arriving earlier, or additional heavy aerial appliances, would not have made any difference to the outcome or the approach taken," he said.

"We have two 'heavy aerial' appliances that can reach up to 32 metres in Auckland and three other aerial appliances in Auckland that can reach up to 17 metres. The second Auckland based appliance was undergoing routine maintenance checks and was on scene in full operational condition by 3pm.

"One of the heavy aerial appliance had a slightly damaged cable meaning it could only be operated from the top, which is normal practice."

He said it only took 10 minutes for an aerial appliance to get to the scene and that it was normal for an aerial appliance to come from outside of Auckland to attend a large fire like what is burning at SkyCity. 

"As with all major incidents, we will be reviewing our response and will take any learnings into consideration."

Ron Devlin. Photo credit: The AM Show.

As of 8am on Thursday, 80 firefighters remain at the scene. The plan from FENZ has been to sacrifice the burning roof and once that has collapsed, allow firefighters to enter the building. Until that happens, it is too dangerous for firefighters to stand directly under the roof.

Campbell called it a "very complex and very challenging fire that we are dealing with at the moment". 

"Being career professional firefighters, we have the training, we have the skills, we have the qualifications and the years of experience behind us to deal with the fire. We are pretty confident we will be able to deal with the incident with the resources we do have available to us," the firefighter said.

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor