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Sprinkler stalwarts reflect on lives saved

FireNZ Magazine, September 2017

A younger John FraserA younger John Fraser


With a collective experience of over 110 years in the fire protection industry, John Fraser and Ian Makgill have both played significant roles in the industry’s development and, ultimately, in making New Zealanders safer. John and Ian spoke with FireNZ Magazine to share their uniquely qualified insights.


Tragedies highlight need for sprinklers

Thirty-seven lives were lost on 8 December 1942 when a fire destroyed a wooden outbuilding housing female patients at the Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin. An inquiry into the fire remarked on the critical absence of sprinklers (present in other new sections of the institution), and recommended their installation in all psychiatric institutions.

It remained New Zealand's worst loss of life in a fire until the Ballantyne's store disaster in Christchurch five years later, which took 41 lives on 18 November 1947. All were employees who found themselves trapped by the fire or were overcome by smoke while evacuating the store without a fire alarm or evacuation plan. There were no sprinklers fitted to the building.

It led to a Royal Commission the eventual the passing of improved fire safety legislation. The Fire Services Act 1949 set up the Fire Service Council to coordinate local body and volunteer fire services, direct training, and distribute equipment.

Ironically, says Ian, the first sprinkler systems were designed in England and brought into the country around the turn of the century and installed in Dunedin. Prior to the 1950s, for example, all Wormald sprinkler systems were designed and built overseas and then brought into the country via Wormald Australia.

These two major incidents, he says, resulted in the government mandating sprinkler systems in certain types of building occupancy. “The Seacliff fire in Dunedin was one of the critical triggers to get the government to say that buildings housing residential care for the infirm, non-ambulatory or incarcerated will be protected with sprinkler systems, and that included houses that were taken over as small special needs houses.”

It was a baptism of fire for the New Zealand sprinkler industry, which stood to grow massively as a result of calls for more sprinklers. But legislating and standardising these life-saving systems would prove a massive ongoing technical and administrative challenge.


The Ballantyne's store disaster, which took 41 lives on 18 November 1947.The Ballantyne's store disaster, which took 41 lives on 18 November 1947.


Two industry Titans

Having milked cows for the army at Waiouru during the war, John studied a degree in mechanical engineering at Canterbury University, graduating in 1951. He then moved to Hamilton and worked with Bisley Industries prior to moving to Auckland in 1952, where he joined Wormald Bros NZ – “the best move I ever made”.

Wormald had commenced its New Zealand operations only a few years previously, and John moved quickly into head office at New Lynn.

“It was a very challenging and interesting job dealing with all sorts of people that worked in the industry and so there was an opportunity to help them understand what we were doing and take responsibility,” John recalls.

“One of John’s legacies,” notes Ian, “is a lot of young people were brought in and got their education through the company.”

“The best thing we did was to introduce a lot of young people into the industry. There were a lot of young people that are now very key in the industry that started with Wormalds in their early days.

“We deliberately provided training programs and education for new entrants to the company, ensuring that all offices throughout the country were provided with consistent information. And that’s the way we educated the workforce.

“If there’s ever a lesson to be learnt, that’s a good one because it works. You get quality fire protection systems, and some of those same people are now taking systems out when we come to decommission and dismantle them, and they know what they’re dealing with. That’s a big plus in the public arena for safety reasons.”


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According to John, it was a busy period. “We needed to train people and get young people into the industry to be trained to be technicians. Sprinkler systems needed to be designed, drawn, procured, costed, fabricated, installed and commissioned. This was tremendously important so once the systems were installed they were easy to test and service by Wormalds staff.

“The owners recognised the benefits of it. So, in that respect I felt very satisfactory that results came out of my efforts.”

A significant program of growth by diversification saw the establishment of various Wormald entities, including Wormald Safety, Wormald Metalbilt, The Sprinkler Manufacturing Company, Wormald Vigilant, IST Consolidated, and Horizon Aluminium. In its acquisition phase, the company bought the fire truck manufacturing operation of Colonial and built 503 fire trucks locally, supplying them to fire boards.

According to Ian, there was no fire protection risk that Wormald wouldn’t take on, tackling installations from aircraft hangers, meat works, drying kilns, to gas storage and tank farms to offshore oil platforms. “If we didn’t know something, we’d go back to Wormald in England, Australia, Europe or USA and ask what are you doing in the North Sea? There’s nothing we wouldn’t protect.”

Prior to his retirement, John was instrumental in setting up Fire Protection Inspection Services, an inspectorate for detection and suppression systems, in 1985. He was succeeded by Ian as Wormald’s Company Engineer.

Beginning his career as an engineering cadet (NZCE and BE), Ian worked originally for L J Fisher (later Carter Holt Harvey) in various locations, including Miami and South Africa on technology transfer. By the time he joined Wormald he was a registered engineer and, after John, the next graduate engineer to join the company.

His Wormald career included 8-9 years in fire truck manufacturing “buying chassis and building trucks”, and running the company’s cadet scheme. Ian survived the 1991 Tyco takeover and he stayed until 1997.

In 2001, Ian set up the company Verifier as a provider of inspection and certification of sprinkler systems. Involved over the long term in the industry and in standards writing/certification processes work, he now works as a fire suppression and sprinkler system consultant.


Regulation and Standardisation

According to Ian, “I think John was faced with a blank canvas. He went through the era of having to decide what standards to adopt. Wormald internationally had huge resources of knowledge, but they weren’t here, so John became a conduit of knowledge. He was very instrumental in the establishment of many fire protection related standards in New Zealand.”

The original sprinkler standard was the FOC (Fire Officers Committee) rules from the UK’s insurance industry, which had been used in New Zealand since the 1900s. FOC rules were adopted by the Ministry of Works, Councils and the Insurance Industry, with local amendments that were written unique to New Zealand.

But there were also stakeholder-driven differences. The insurance industry, for example, required sprinklers in all concealed spaces, whereas the Ministry was of the position that that wasn’t necessary.

According to Ian, it was effectively a tale of two authorities: the government and the commercial, which each had distinct primary motivations. “The commercial was driven by the insurance industry and property safety, and for the government it was life safety.”

This had its upsides. The insurance industry was driving the growth in sprinklers due to the imperative of protecting property, while at the same time, states John, “engineers looking after government buildings had a very sensible approach to life safety systems.”

The downside was that the demise of the Ministry of Works in the 1980s saw significant gaps in the inspection and re-certification of Crown-owned systems.

Significant work in developing New Zealand’s Regulations and Standards occurred through the 1950s, 60s and 70s through the pioneering and lobbying work carried out by John Slater and Bill Jarvie (Wormald NZ CEO) under the Fire Protection Association banner. However, as Ian puts it, New Zealand continued to “tag along” with sprinkler standards being developed in Australia, the UK and USA.

On 26 July 1969, a fire at Sprott House, a home for the elderly in Karori, Wellington, led to the deaths of seven residents and precipitating legislative change. The Fire Safety Evacuation of Buildings Regulations 1970 made sprinklers, automatic alarms and evacuation schemes compulsory for institutions housing more than 20 people.

Two years later in 1972, NZS4541P – the first-ever New Zealand sprinkler standard, was introduced. Accompanied by a range of other fire safety standards, it represented the success of collaborative effort by the industry.

However, it took further fire deaths for a universal requirement for sprinklers in rest homes to be legislated. The 11 July 1989 Terwindle Rest Home, in which six elderly residents died, triggered legislation requiring sprinkler installation in several hundred rest homes across New Zealand.

Then, in 1992, the Building Code came into force following the passing of the Building Act 1991, making sprinklers mandatory in many types of buildings to meet Building Regulation evacuation and life safety criteria.

“The savings in the industry and therefore the community at large as a result of sprinkler systems is quite remarkable,” notes Ian, “because the system detects and fights fire while responders are on their way. The question of whether they are efficient is proven by their track record.”

The story of the regulation and standardisation of sprinkler systems in New Zealand is one that spans over a century since the first systems were shipped from the UK to Dunedin. While tragedies have often provided the catalyst for change, it is only through the effort and drive of key individual like John and Ian that the industry has been able to as effective as it is today in saving lives.

John was awarded an OBE for services to the fire industry and training, nominated by the FPA.  For the past two decades, he has focused considerable effort on the removal from service and responsible disposal of the environmentally destructive fire suppression gas Halon, an endeavour that will be covered in a coming edition of FireNZ.


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