Forged fire safety certificates exposed in Christchurch

By Phil Pennington of RNZ

Building control officers in Christchurch have caught a private company's compliance manager forging fire safety certificates, including for a school.

The city council was initially duped by the doctored documents.

A 51-year-old man has been sentenced to nine months home detention on four charges of using the forged documents.

He was not registered to approve the likes of safe evacuation routes so forged the signature of someone who was.

The annual certificates are used to get warrants of fitness that attest to a building's safety.

The retired building consultant whose identity was misused, John McGowan, of Christchurch, said the forgeries covered very important safety systems.

"Mercifully, this case is the first I've heard of," McGowan said.

The man's employer, Evolve Fire Protection, said it did not know about what he was up to, that it was "bad", but the forged compliances were for "little things ... there's no harm to the New Zealand public".

However, the police told RNZ "there was a clear public interest in bringing a prosecution case, as the offending directly impacted the safety of members of the public".

According to police, the judge said at sentencing that the "shortcuts" the man took had put vulnerable people at risk.

The council said "it was our vigilant ... officer who demonstrated exceptional attention to detail" who uncovered the forgeries, sparking an investigation and the conviction.

"While we strive for perfection, instances of fraudulent documentation can occur despite our best efforts," head of building consenting, Steffan Thomas, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"In response to these events, we took decisive action", including ensuring Evolve tightened up.

All seven buildings had since been checked and okayed, Thomas said. He did not identify the school.

McGowan said the council and police did an "outstanding" job to nip a threat to the integrity of the building WOF system in the bud.

"This just reinforces the fact that this is not just more red tape. This is actually something that can save lives."

However, building control staff were under "enormous" pressure, added McGowan, who spent years in the industry.

An official assessment of the Christchurch City Council in 2022 said it had too few staff vetting building WOFs and should review the resources - though Thomas maintained that the council "has not received any external reviews or assessments indicating a lack of skilled personnel in BWOF compliance".

Subsequently the council told RNZ that it had employed more BWOF staff after the ministry review.

The previous government was moving to bring in stiffer penalties for trying to game the building warrant of fitness system, though those have not been enacted yet, and fire regulations remain under review following the fatal Loafers Lodge fire.

A 2022 assessment of Christchurch City Council said it had too few staff vetting Building Warrant of Fitness checks.
A 2022 assessment of Christchurch City Council said it had too few staff vetting Building Warrant of Fitness checks. Photo credit: Newshub

Exposing the forgeries

McGowan had recently retired as a building services consultant at multinational SGS, when the council came to him in mid-2022, asking about a certificate that had his name on it and his registration number as a 'independent qualified person' to do fire checks (an IQP) throughout the South Island.

It was "badly drafted" and "highly suspicious".

"When I saw the document, I could confirm that it was plainly a forgery," McGowan said on Tuesday.

"Someone had clearly misappropriated my identity and SGS logo, and the question was, who?"

The council investigation exposed a half dozen or so similar rip-off certificates, which were boiled down to four representative charges. The forger was initially charged with seven instances between mid-2020 and mid-2022.

"Bloody embarrassing, and it's something you try so hard not to happen then it does," said Dennis Taylor, general manager at Evolve, which the city council named as the firm involved.

"If someone signs a thing, how do you as a company know that it was [right]?"

The firm had since tightened up - managers "get asked why, who and how".

The convicted man still worked for them but was not allowed to sign off anything, he said.

The country's building WOF system is the main line of defence against buildings falling into unsafe disrepair.

Five people died and nearly 100 others were left homeless after a fire at Loafers Lodge in Wellington.
Five people died and nearly 100 others were left homeless after a fire at Loafers Lodge in Wellington. Photo credit: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Loafers Lodge fire last May exposed weaknesses - the Wellington City Council had been doing far too few audits of how fire systems were being checked up on at thousands of buildings.

A building owner must get monthly checks done of vital systems including fire alarms - who does these checks is only loosely regulated, while only an IQP with the right registrations is allowed sign off on annual checks.

"As IQPs, we have a weighty responsibility to be scrupulously honest in all our professional actions," McGowan said.

The case sent "a warning to people who are tempted to cut corners or to be dishonest".

The WOF system introduced in 2004 was gradually getting better and building owners taking it more seriously, he said.

The 2022 assessment at Christchurch by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment made the "strong recommendation" that the council review its resourcing, because it had only four BWOF staff, each looking after 1339 buildings.

The ministry says a pending law change will mean any IQP who negligently certifies a specified system can be fined up to $50,000, or body corporates up to $150,000.

The council said ensuring the safety and compliance of buildings was "paramount".

It had a rigourous verification process that cross-referenced all documents against the IQP register to ensure that the right people were doing sign-offs.

MBIE said it was working with councils on a more nationally consistent approach to IQPs, and on changes to fire safety provisions in the Building Code.