Fire fears: Are Auckland’s ageing fire trucks up to the job?

A senior Auckland firefighter claims many of the region’s fire trucks are old and unreliable, and wonders if the devastating damage to the SkyCity convention centre in the fire a year ago could have been reduced if the right appliances had been available.

Station officer Martin Campbell says the only aerial appliance available in Auckland on the day of the New Zealand International Convention Centre fire was 25 years old. A second aerial appliance was brought in from Hamilton but it had a shorter reach and arrived two hours after the fire began. That also left the Waikato region exposed, he said.

The appliance was replacing one that was away for servicing and another newer one had been returned to the manufacturer due to a design fault. That aerial appliance was away for so long fire crews were now having to retrain before it can go back into service.

Campbell, the Auckland local secretary for the New Zealand Professional Firefighters’ Union (NZPFU), said the situation had left the Auckland region – which extends up to the Far North – unacceptably exposed.

He blames a lack of planning, saying Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) had let its aerial fleet and fire trucks degrade to such an extent that the situation was now critical.

“They are now getting caught short many times.”

The issue was exacerbated last year when 23 of the service’s MAN type 3 fire trucks were recalled after cracks were found in the steel supporting the body work. That left many of Auckland’s stations using older relief trucks.

Campbell cited last month’s major fire in Māngere at a Tourism Holding campervan workshop near Auckland Airport. Two of the first two fire trucks to attend the fire, from Māngere and Onehunga, broke down and were not able to start extinguishing the fire, relying on a third appliance from Papatoetoe.

On the Māngere truck a cable snapped, which meant it could not pump water, and the Onehunga truck developed a fault, he said.

Both trucks were relief trucks that were 25-30 years old. “It was the worst possible situation. You’ve got these old trucks that are at the end of their life and they shouldn’t be in these busy stations.”

Fenz Auckland/Northland manager Ron Devlin this week acknowledged there were issues within the organisation that needed addressing but said the relief trucks were regularly and well serviced, and were fit for purpose.

“It is a challenge but it’s not one that is beyond us. Things still break even when they are serviced.”

The Māngere truck’s broken cable was not related to the age of the vehicle, he said, but it shouldn’t have happened.

“We ‘ve got some work underway to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”

The fault on the Onehunga appliance had still not been identified because it had not happened subsequently and could therefore not be replicated.

Fire and Emergency, which is just three years old, has faced some challenges in uniting 40 organisations into one, covering a region that extends as far north as Cape Reinga and includes 3000 career and volunteer firefighters.

A review of the convention centre fire, commissioned by Fenz and overseen by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), listed 11 recommendations one of which concerned Fenz’s planning strategy for aerial appliances and the shortage of trained aerial operators.

Campbell said if there had been more aerial appliances available at the convention centre fire, firefighters could have taken them straight to the roof.

“We would have been able to plug straight into that basket and get water to the roof in a lot quicker time,” he said. “If we’d had that option the potential for a different outcome would have been better. We’ll never know.”

But Devlin’s view is that the outcome of the fire would have been no different because the fire was raging within the sealed roof cavity.

Devlin said Fenz had accepted all the recommendations in the AFAC review and work was already underway. More aerial appliance operators were undergoing training, and four new appliances were planned within the next two years including one for the Auckland region.

A long-term review had also been launched to assess future needs for the country and whether aerial appliances with a greater reach than 32m were justified. In the meantime the coverage was adequate for Auckland – two large aerials plus a spare, and three 18m aerials at Papatoetoe, Ellerslie and Te Atatū, he said.

“These vehicles are not what you call super busy and they are a quite a big investment.”

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