A Kiwi firefighter says a fire that ripped through a Sydney nursing home killing six patients was preventable and is calling for Australian authorities to affect a law change to stop others dying the same way.
Two fires broke out in different parts of the Principal Quakers Hill home and tore through the single-story complex before dawn Friday. Part of the roof collapsed, and firefighters crawled through blinding smoke to rescue more than 80 patients, many of whom are bedridden or suffer from dementia.
Three patients died in the blaze, and two more later in hospital. A further 13 were critically injured. A 35-year-old nurse has been charged with four counts of murder after allegedly setting the fires.
Firefighters described the blaze as Sydney's worst since 16 patients died in a nursing home fire in suburban Sylvania Heights in 1981.
Authorities said the home passed a safety audit in July. But it was an older-style home without an emergency sprinkler systems.
Unlike New Zealand, there is no legal requirement in Australia for nursing homes to have sprinklers.
Auckland Fire Safety Officer Terry Castle said in 2004 New Zealand building legislation was changed, ordering the installation of sprinkler systems into all new places of care, including aged care facilities.
Each facility must have a fire alarm system that includes sprinklers, automatic smoke detection and manual fire alarm call points. Other fire safety features are also a requirement, not an option. The sprinklers and call points must be connected to a fire service approved monitoring centre.
The move followed a strategy put in place in 1996 by the then Chief Fire Safety Officer of the Auckland Fire Region, supported by the Ministry of Health whereby all aged care facilities were to upgrade fire safety features where needed.
Mr Castle wrote to the Herald, saying he was saddened by the "tragic" fire in Sydney.
"The sad reality however is that the fire and subsequent loss of life and property damage were largely preventable," he said.
Mr Castle joined the Fire Service in Sydney in the 1960s and is now in his 40th year with the New Zealand Fire Service. The last 14 of his career he has spent working as a Fire Safety Officer.
"I had the dubious privilege in the winter of 1989 of being the first arriving officer at the Terwindle Rest Home fire (in) Herne Bay - Auckland's worst fatality fire ever with six dead on scene and a further death later on.
"Fire safety measures in that building at the time were compliant but minimal. In regards to this fire in Australia quite clearly those who should have learnt and enacted corrective legislation following the 1981 nursing home fire in Sydney in which 16 patients died, have failed to do so."
Mr Castle said worldwide there were two known groups of persons who historically have always featured highest in fire death statistics, the young and the elderly.
"Automatic sprinkler systems have been in existence for over 130 years and it is an indisputable fact that when functioning correctly an operative and compliant system will provide the highest level of life and property protection that can be achieved in the event of a fire eventuating in a building.
"It is clearly evident that the Quakers Hill Nursing Home was not covered by an automatic sprinkler system. Had this been the case any fire taking place would have been minimal in size, would not have escalated as this fire obviously has, there would not have been the extensive smoke that there was and the resultant loss of life and injury to patients would have been minimal if at all, likewise property damage would have been localised.
"It is said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Never in the annals of fire fighting can this be more graphically illustrated than in this tragic fire in Sydney."
Mr Castle hoped a lesson would be learned from the tragedy.
"One can but hope that this time, stimulated by this tragic event those in Australia with the authority to make change will do so, making the installation of sprinkler systems into care facilities a requirement not an option, so that there will never be a repeat of this tragic event ever again."
The man charged over the fatal fire is registered nurse Roger Dean. He appeared via video link on n four counts of murder at the Parramatta Local Court on Saturday morning.
Police said Mr Dean had only been working at the rest home for a short time. It was unclear why he allegedly set the fires or why.