When a section of the prosecutions office at Auckland Central Police station started smouldering late in the evening of Friday, June 7, there were, fortunately, no staff at work, but 4500 paper prosecutions files were, literally, in the line of fire.
The fire alarm went off at 11.05pm on the ground floor of the two-storey administration block and the rest of the building was evacuated. Sixteen fire trucks arrived and the blaze was extinguished by 12.20am.
When district prosecutions manager Senior Sergeant Craig Kitto, who until recently was stationed at Auckland, arrived on the scene the next morning he was expecting to see a soggy, burnt, irretrievable mess… and, at first glance, that was how it appeared.
However, he said, although the place was in a shocking state, there was little water damage and even the office mascot – a novelty plastic bubble bath bottle in the shape of police officer perched atop of a pile of papers – was still in one piece.
“We were amazed he had survived intact, because all the other plastic in the building was warped and buckled,” Craig said.
The little fellow had been an office fixture for 14 years.
Further investigation of the wrecked room revealed that between 60 and 80 prosecution files had been completely destroyed and the remaining 4000-plus files were so badly smoke damaged and “stinky” that there was no way they could be taken into a courtroom, Craig said.
Most of the files were destined for the Auckland District Court, including ones that would be required the following week, starting on the Monday morning.
A recovery operation was devised, overseen by Rebekah Tomlin, the regional manager for the upper North Island, preceded by an “SOS” call to staff from other districts to come and help.
“A plan was put in place to photocopy each of the smoke-damaged files,” Rebekah said. “And, for the ones that could not be found, they had to be reproduced using information from NIA, CJSU and local knowledge.”
Starting from Sunday, June 9, staff worked in two shifts – 7am to 4pm and 3pm to 11pm – each day.
Two staff at a time worked on recovering files and personal property (and the office mascot) from the burnt-out office, and a team of frontline prosecutors set to work reproducing the files, either from scratch or by photocopying the damaged material.
“The initial reaction was, what a disaster,” Rebekah said, “but we knew we had to do our best to get the business back up.”
Police IT organised extra photocopiers from around the districts, hired some high-speed copiers and also got 28 computers up and running on the Sunday.
“It was a bit chaotic at times,” she said, “but it was an awesome recovery job with support from the districts.”
As well as support from City and TM districts, staff were drafted in from Wellington, Christchurch and Gisborne.
The urgent files were all ready to go in time for the first court sittings of the week.
The word from the courts was that the flow of cases had not been affected, which was a remarkable outcome, Rebekah said.
The whole recovery process took about four weeks.
“The response was unbelievable and it was an amazing feat of work by everyone involved.”
Within two weeks, the Auckland prosecutions team were relocated to a new, temporary office space. They’ll never return to their old office anyway as, in about six months, all the Auckland Central staff will be moving to a new building in College Hill, Auckland.
At the time of going to print, the cause of the office fire was still being investigated.
It was a bit chaotic at times, but it was an awesome recovery job with support from the districts.”