National | Fire

Police, Fire service give update on Loafers Lodge fire investigation

Inspector Dion Bennett, Acting Wellington District Commander, has been speaking about Operation Rose, the probe into the blaze at Loafers Lodge.

The fire was classified yesterday as arson.

The death toll from the fire stands at six but it may be days before a final death toll is known.

"Police have this morning begun a scene examination at Loafer's Lodge," Bennett told the briefing.

The damage on the third floor was significant. The debris was piled high and there was a lot of material for workers to move so they could search underneath.

Disaster unit identification teams were on site, he said.

"This afternoon I expect that we will commence recovering some bodies from Loafer's Lodge. It's likely to be two bodies that we will be able to remove today."

He said it was planned another two bodies would be recovered on Friday.

Teams were working hard with families behind the scenes, he said.

"I can assure you we are doing everything we can to recover and identify the deceased, the loved ones from the Loafers Lodge as quickly as we can.

"Our scene examination is likely to take several days and is likely to go into the weekend."

Road closures in the area will continue, he says, however, they will attempt to get one lane of Adelaide Road open to ease traffic congestion.

"We continue to work with our partner agencies to support those residents who were evacuated," Bennett says.

People will not be able to return or retrieve any property until the investigation is complete.

"The property inside the building is damaged by fire and more importantly, asbestos. There will need to be some decisions made if it is safe to return that property."

During question time, Bennett said a final confirmation on the number of dead will not be made until the scene is cleared.

Asked about the arson investigation, Bennett said he could not give any further updates.

Regarding removal of the victims, there will be proper care taken to remove them respectfully and proceed to identification.

Earlier today, Fire and Emergency chief executive Kerry Gregory also provided an update.

He praised those who responded to the blaze. Firefighters and communications centre operators who were taking calls from those trapped did a phenomenal job in a difficult situation, he said.

"This has been an extremely traumatic incident for our people and the local community."

Most firefighters in their whole career, don't go to a fatality in a building - let alone multiple fatalities, he said.

"When I went to speak to them it wasn't about how did you go in the fire, what tactics did you employ. It was about checking on their welfare and making sure that they're okay, and they're really struggling in that space because ... you question yourself around could I have done anything different, what would have happened.

"And that's why it's important to wait for the operational review, when our people have had time to get their heads around what's actually happened to get a pragmatic review of how the operation was run."

FENZ sent 33 trucks and more than 80 firefighters from all over Wellington to the fire. A command unit, a firetruck with breathing apparatus, urban search and rescue technicians and two ladder appliances were dispatched.

"Newtown's 17-metre ladder truck and pumping truck were both operational at the Newtown fire along with the Thorndon's type 5 32m aerial appliance.

"While Newtown's 32-metre ladder truck was off the run for maintenance, it was replaced by the normal relief appliance which is a 17-metre ladder appliance, so available for immediate response. Our two Newtown trucks both arrived within five minutes of Fire and Emergency's 111 fire communication centre being alerted."

Wellington district provided significant resources and despite its tragic nature, fire and emergency staff did an excellent job, he said.

Many questions around fleet

Gregory said he was seeing many questions coming through about the FENZ fleet and its capability to respond.

"I can reassure Fire and Emergency had enough crews and specialist appliances to respond to the Newtown fire."

However, the service had challenges with an ageing fleet, he said, adding that 27 percent of appliances were now beyond their asset life of 20-25 years. Thirty new fire stations had been built since January 2018, he said.

"While there's been considerable investment in fleet, property and the back office systems since Fire and Emergency's formation in 2017, current and planned levels of capital expenditure will be really challenged to ensure the maintenance and the necessary investment in our assets to meet the needs of New Zealand communities based on our forecast income."

The condition of fleet varied significantly from those that were fit for purpose to those that were barely fit to use, he said.

"It would take significant investment to improve and replenish the main assets that Fire and Emergency has."

Fire and Emergency's board was looking at options and mechanisms in terms of how to fund the shortfall, he said.

Service trucks regularly broke down and until the fleet could be replenished this will continue to happen, he said.

"With an aging fleet, even though it's really well-maintained, they're older trucks that are going to need to be refreshed and modernised through that and so until we can work through that process as an organisation in terms of what we've inherited, we're going to have some times when appliances don't make it onto the fire ground."

FENZ was in the process of purchasing four new replacement 32m ladder trucks and one 44m ladder truck, he said.

"We are budgeted to spend around $25 million on fleet for the next three years."

He added: "Procurement takes time but we're working with our unions and associations to create a better stronger fleet within our budget."

New firefighter recruits needed

Firefighters numbers were also not where they needed to be and FENZ was working with the union to decide on how many new recruits were needed to reduce the reliance on overtime.

During question time, Gregory was asked if firefighters had been tactically restricted handling the Loafers Lodge fire. He responded he would want to see the results of an operational review before commenting.

Some firefighters had raised concerns with him that they had the type 4 rather than the type 5 ladder in Newtown, but he wanted to see the operational review results, he said.

"I don't want to jump to any conclusions, I want to wait for the outcome of the operational review to see what we can learn from them.

"How you position the resources that you have on the fire ground are specific to any particular fire," he said.

All the vehicles that were in Newtown were fit for purpose, but he was not denying there were some huge legacy issues with equipment, he said.

Police are treating the fire as arson and investigations are continuing, including into the role played by Fire and Emergency in the rescue of five people off the roof.

FENZ had only one large 32-metre ladder truck on hand to rescue people from the roof of the lodge during the fire, while a second such truck based in Newtown has been off the road for more than a year.

An initial reconnaissance of the building in Newtown was done on Wednesday, and police officers will be leading an extensive search of the building today.

- RNZ. 

Public Interest Journalism