Warped doors, ineffective fire walls and vulnerable cladding – Scott Base’s fire risks have been detailed in a worrying report. David Williams reports.

It’s one of the harshest environments in the world. With Antarctica’s below-freezing temperatures, strong winds, frequent blizzards and ultra-dry conditions, it’s imperative New Zealand’s research base in Antarctica, Scott Base, can protect the people inside.

But a fire safety report completed earlier this year – and released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act – paints a worrying picture of the ramshackle base’s fire design, should things go wrong. It also appears the problems have been around for years and some were errantly thought to have been rectified.

A briefing written in January for Foreign Minister Winston Peters, released separately to Newsroom, says Antarctica New Zealand has identified “high level risks” at Scott Base. They’re listed as “the risk to health and safety of the base residents”, the “low level of resilience” of core infrastructure,  “questions over how well Scott Base is complying with standards”, and issues with “how fit for purpose” some parts of the base are.

Such fundamental problems, and the constant need to improve and maintain the ageing facilities, surely increase the likelihood that Antarctica New Zealand will ask the Government, later this year, to approve a costly upgrade for Scott Base, costing roughly $150 million.

“Most of the fire walls are only partially useful, with many barely offering a smoke separation as they stand and some offering no protection at all.” – Scott Base fire safety report

The fire safety report – by specialist firm FFP Canterbury – states, reassuringly, that the base’s sprinkler system is effective and will activate early in a fire’s development, working to control its spread. So-called layflat hoses and fire service waterway equipment are dotted at points around the base, as are handheld extinguishers, to be used by crews trained by Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

But the report says FENZ needs to review the location of fire walls and the effectiveness of their design. “Most of the fire walls are only partially useful, with many barely offering a smoke separation as they stand and some offering no protection at all.” Fire doors are also bowed and warped, reducing their effectiveness. A re-design of the base should include “sturdy, non-combustible panelling” as external cladding adjacent to fire walls, the report says.

Before completing its report, FFP unearthed a 2006 fire safety review of Scott Base which, it says, highlighted many of the same issues. A 2014 update said many issues had been resolved, but they “appear not to have been”. “Many of the issues raised 12 years ago are still present and in many cases have deteriorated significantly since.”

Safety is non-negotiable

Antarctica New Zealand’s general manager of communications Megan Martin tells Newsroom the base’s issues are the primary reason it has been working on a redevelopment plan. “The safety of our people is a non-negotiable so any risks such as those identified in the reports are actively and proactively managed.”

Where so-called “passive” safety features, like fire doors and walls, are not effective, it is using “active” controls to address areas of risk, Martin says. The base’s operation firefighting procedures are a combination of early detection and rapid response.

“Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) has not said to stop use of the building – instead, under their suggestion, we are running a Fire System Improvement project. This will ensure we work safely with what we have while improving our protection on base.”

(A separate report from last October, written by Envirocom (NZ) Ltd, was impressed with Scott Base’s firefighting capabilities. It notes the base has a “professional, well-functioning team” working with enthusiasm and confidence. “Realistically, they don’t have an option but to get it right.”)

Scott Base fire report by David Williams on Scribd

The FFP report lays out the “poor state” of Scott Base’s passive fire protection elements.

Some fire and smoke doors are bowed and warped from timber shrinkage in the ultra-dry environment, leading to inadequate seals. Fire walls have been damaged “in numerous areas” and repaired with inferior products. Also, in some cases, entire underfloor fire walls have been built using fire “pillows”, which are soft and malleable and expand to create a seal in a fire. But they’re deemed a temporary solution, according to FFP, and, in numerous instances, have been poorly installed.

In some cases, entire underfloor fire walls have been built by stacking pillows across an underfloor space, unsupported by any wall or framing. “A fire will cause the fire pillows to start an expansion, but like an unsupported spring in which tension is placed, it is likely to cause the stack of pillows to bow outwards and fall, causing the entire fire rating to fail and allowing the fire to spread through the wall.”

Spreading fire – particularly from inadequately fire-separated storage areas, off long corridors – poses a problem because the only way to avoid the fire might be outside. That puts the occupants in even greater danger by exposing them to some of the harshest weather on the planet.

“The effect of the toxic fumes from a fire event must be controlled with smoke separations…” – Scott Base fire safety report

The base’s cladding consists of panels of either polyisocyanurate (PIR) or expanded polystyrene (PSP), sandwiched between aluminium sheeting. Expanded plastics are “very vulnerable” to fire, the FFP report says. The risk with that material is a fire spreading around the outside of the base, circumventing fire-rated walls.

Even PSP panels made with fire retardant only hold combustion to 400 degrees. “Once combustion occurs within the core of the panel, the fire is almost impossible to attack, resulting in the loss of the entire building as the fire creeps invisibly through the core of the building material.”

Once alight, the panels can emit “large amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide”. A 2011 study of fire toxicity of insulating materials by the University of Central Lancashire’s Centre for Fire and Hazard Science observed that most fire deaths result from toxic product inhalation. The study concluded that “PIR generally released a considerably higher level of toxic products than the other insulating materials studied”.

Scott Base is one continuous and “poorly ventilated” structure, the FFP report says. “The effect of the toxic fumes from a fire event must be controlled with smoke separations preventing the gases from affecting the occupants of the building from being affected by the residual smoke.”

Another problem identified is Scott Base’s external insulation is held together “almost exclusively” with nylon bolts. In a fire, the bolts are likely to fail, the report says. “The result will be that the structure of the building could fail, with panels literally falling off the steel skeleton of the base and creating a risk to fire crews.”

The clock is ticking

FFP makes a suite of recommendations for fire safety improvements. They include adopting an inspection, maintenance and auditing regime similar to that used by New Zealand councils. (The Canterbury fire safety firm asked the Christchurch City Council to administer Scott Base for a warrant of fitness. But the council said it didn’t want to “take any liability on by adding this site to their network”.)

Antarctica New Zealand’s Martin says designs for fire system improvements at Scott Base are being finalised and work will occur this coming season. “This will also include extension of the sprinkler system into the radio/comms area and additional emergency lighting in corridors.”

Scott Base, handed over to the government officially in 1958, has evolved organically and now comprises 11 buildings connected by all-weather walkways, as well as outbuildings. In winter, there’s a skeleton staff of 10-to-15 people, increasing to about 100 people during summer.

The official line from Antarctica New Zealand is that its redevelopment business case, to be submitted in December, will present a range of options to the Government. The FFP report is firmer: “There is an intention to build an entirely new base.” However, the report notes, “there appears to be no certainty about a potential design, a timeframe to complete this, or the New Zealand government’s commitment to allocate the necessary funds”.

The clock is ticking. FFP says Scott Base’s buildings “are not likely to have a lifespan beyond 15 years”.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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