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The BulletinMay 17, 2023

What we know a day after the fatal fire at Loafers

Image of the side of a New Zealand Fire Service fire truck
(Image: Getty)

While there is still a lot of uncertainty and people unaccounted for, questions are emerging about accommodation standards and protections for those who called Loafers home, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.


What we know this morning

Following yesterday’s fatal fire at Loafers Lodge in Wellington where six people lost their lives, 11 people are still unaccounted for. The Herald has a good summary this morning of what is currently known. Emergency services have not yet been able to search all of the building so confirmation of further fatalities can’t be made until that is done. Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) assistant national commander Bruce Stubbs told the AM show this morning he is confident that the building is now safe for police to start their investigation. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what happened and plenty of questions swirling about the cause of the fire, the safety of the building and standards of accommodation. Police have said the fire was unexplained at this stage while Stubbs said the fire was being treated as “suspicious”. The city has rallied with an appeal set up via the Wellington City Mission to help provide meals, clothing and support to those affected. Wellington City Council says nearly 50 people who have been displaced as a result of the fire have found temporary accommodation.

Questions about warning systems and prevention

Newshub reported last night that while survivors say alarms did go off, they were often ignored because there had been too many false alarms in the past. One resident who had lived at Loafers for three years said “the fire alarm has been going off for three years, at 12am, 3am, 5 in the morning and we ignore it.” Fire and Emergency will look into this as part of its investigation. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan has a comprehensive and thorough breakdown (paywalled) of exactly why the hostel didn’t have sprinklers. New Zealand’s building code does not mandate sprinklers in multi-storey residential buildings like Loafers. A key question for any inquiry will be whether all multi-storey residential buildings should be required to have sprinklers installed. Coughlan also looks into the age of our fire truck fleet and how well equipped our fire service is to deal with these kinds of incidents.

Building had warrant of fitness but expert says safety rules need better enforcement

Loafers had a building warrant of fitness and RNZ’s Phil Pennington breaks down exactly what that means. Housing minister Megan Wood confirmed the building was checked by an independent expert just two months ago. Pennington also spoke with Dr Geoff Thomas, a fire engineer who has studied boarding house risks, who said safety rules for multi-unit blocks needed better enforcement. Thomas notes that crowded or high-risk buildings like shopping malls, office blocks and hospitals have high hazards, but a lot of protections and said that transient accommodation was a weak spot.

Anger rising about tragedy amid a housing shortage

The Guardian’s Tess McClure does a good, careful job of starting to unravel some of the sentiment being expressed about the state of housing in New Zealand. As McClure details, Loafers Lodge is one of a network of hostels, motels and boarding houses that are home to some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable communities: those on sickness and disability benefits, elderly people, the previously homeless, ex-prisoners, those deported under Australia’s “501” deportation policy. While minister of social development Carmel Sepuloni confirmed the lodge had not been used as emergency housing since 2020, it was part of a less formal network of temporary accommodation. Heleyni Pratley, a public housing advocate, said “This calamity is a result of a seriously defunded, unplanned and privatised housing system.” As politicians expressed their condolences and thanked emergency services for their work in the House yesterday, co-leader of the Greens James Shaw asked, “What kind of country are we, where those people have so few options in life but to live in substandard accommodation, with a reasonable chance of lethality?”

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