Fire Service report damning

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The New Zealand Fire Service Commission’s report into the fatal explosion and fire at the Icepak coolstore in Tamahere, released today, is damning of regulatory authorities and the company.

It shows that Icepak had used highly flammable propane at Tamahere since 2003, despite the company indicating to the Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA) that a trial of propane at its new Waharoa plant in 2007 was its first use of the gas. EECA gave Icepak a $60,800 grant to part fund the trial in which Tamahere, supposedly using Freon, was to be used as a comparison.

As far as the inquiry could determine there were no hazard warning signs on the Icepak site to indicate the use of a highly flammable gas, which did not contain a stenching agent to alert anyone to leaks. The gas, HyChill-50, is normally known for its pungent smell but the gas used at Icepak Tamahere was odourless.

The report also shows that the Waikato District Council, at best, relied on Icepak to present fire engineering plans for the site. It also raises many questions about the council’s requirements and enforcement under the Building code.

In a media release, the Fire Service said its report found that the explosion and fire was almost certainly caused by a leak of flammable refrigerant ignited by an electrical event, when the firefighters were in the plant room.

It suggests the most likely cause was an electrical fault in an unprotected switchboard.

Specific matters in the inquiry team’s recommendations include the following:

* The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (“HSNO”) regulations and standards should be amended so that stationary refrigeration systems, and the refrigerant they contain, are subject to appropriate controls.

* All large-scale flammable gas installations should by law require inclusion of stenching agents in the gas.

* The regulatory regime as a whole should be reviewed to promote the sharing of information about hazardous substances between regulatory and other interested agencies.

* The current rural/urban fire legislation should be analysed in relation to risk planning and control of fires in buildings throughout New Zealand.

* Agencies need to share information about buildings using nationally consistent formats.

* Fire Service pre-incident planning processes need to identify high-risk buildings, including those that are outside the urban fire district.

* The current Fire Service instruction on significant incident and post-incident support should be reviewed to capture lessons learnt in this event.

* Fire Service operational instructions on the use of gas detectors should be reviewed to provide more detailed information.

* Formal security and scene handover procedures for major fires should be improved.

The inquiry identified nine different factors, any one of which could have avoided the risks and injuries to the responding firefighters:

* HSNO regulations applied fully to this installation

* prior notification to the Fire Service of hazardous substances at the premises

* receipt of an application for approval of an evacuation scheme

* pre-incident planning and familiarisation visit by local Fire Service staff

* Fire Service awareness of the large-scale use of flammable refrigerants in New Zealand

* warning signage at the premises

* stenching agent present in refrigerant gas

* flammable gas detection on the premises alerting crews

* crews using a portable gas detector.

The full report is available on the Fire Service site.

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