By Jeff Neems, Communications Advisor
Kim Dawick has detailed knowledge of wooden turnstiles.
He’s also very astute when it comes to footbridges.
Walking tracks with “boxed” steps? Oh yeah, he’s seen plenty of them.
Trampers huts? He knows all about those… inside and out.
As one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) 17 inspectors, it’s his job to have a detailed understanding of the structures and built assets on public conservation land.
Because if he’s not satisfied an asset is safe and sound, he’s got the authority to close it immediately.
And although a closure – temporary or permanent – may cause consternation for visitors, it’s their safety driving Kim’s work.
“Everything I do is about safety,” says the mechanical engineer, who’s also worked as a professional hunter and school teacher.
“I work to a two-year cycle, methodically working my way through a lengthy list of assets we manage – I’m basically looking for faults and stuff that isn’t up standard.
“And this is my office,” he quips, motioning to the lush native forest of the Pirongia Forest Park.
He’ll walk up to 10km a day, focussing on minor details and pieces of timber and concrete visitors may never notice.
DOC’s rigorous and multi-layered asset management and inspection regime is a direct result of the Cave Creek tragedy of 1995. There is an elaborate system of checks, cross-referencing and peer reviewing in the background, and Kim is at the sharp end of it, ensuring risks and defects are identified, and the need for repairs is passed on to colleagues responsible for upkeep.
All Inspectors like Kim are, in essence, a behind-the-scenes human safety net, with attention to detail matched to construction and mechanical knowledge. They’re the DOC staff the public rarely encounter, quietly going about their work 52 weeks of the year, giving assets “all clear”, or lodging notifications and work orders as needed.
“It takes a team to deliver this work programme; as an asset inspector my role is to capture the condition of the assets, others in the team manage this data and plan for the future, while others design and build the inevitable replacement of assets as they age,” he says.
The day I join Kim, his task is familiar – it’s the inspection of a footbridge on the Mangkara Nature Walk, rebuilt a couple of years ago after the old bridge was retired. He knows the bridge’s history, pointing out the parts of the old structure deemed sound enough to be put to good use on the current structure.
His bag of tools is fairly simple: a measuring tape, a putty scraper for poking and prodding at things, and his cellphone, equipped with a special app allowing him to record asset inspection details at the site, and link to a DOC AMIS system – (Asset Management Information System) back at the office. Every asset is marked with an orange tag and a six-digit number, “the same as the licence plate on your car or motorbike”, Kim explains.
To the unfamiliar, Kim’s task might seem straightforward – look over the bridge to ensure it remains structurally sound, note down any remedial work needed in the cellphone app, write up a report…. And come back and do it all again in two years.
Every part of the bridge has to be closely examined, so he starts by slowly running his hand over the bannister. A u-turn at the end of the bridge, and back down the other side.
Next it’s the railings, which he explains are designed to prevent a small child falling into the crystal clear water of mountain stream below. Because Mangakara is a well-groomed family-friendly bush walk, the asset specifications and requirements are higher than, for example, an alpine back country track suitable for only the most experienced mountain adventurers.
There’s an issue with a railing – two bolts which hold the steel to the timber frame of the bridge have disappeared. Kim needs to check the rigidity of the asset to ascertain which call to make.
“I’m putting about 50kg of pressure on there now,” he says, as he pushes at the railing with the missing bolt.
“You can see although it’s got a little gap, it’s not enough for a child to fall through, which is what I am looking for…. But we still need to get that fixed. The Waikato Operations staff will get a notification of what they need to do, and someone will be sent up here to do the job.”
He measures the width of the column so he can instruct the length of bolt needed, takes a photo of the specific part of the bridge where the bolt is needed. Tap, tap, tap on the cellphone.
Next, it’s the deck of the bridge, which is fitted with a special plastic netting to prevent slips and falls. Kim checks to make sure the plastic remains firmly attached to the wooden planks, ensuring there are no trip or slip hazards.
Satisfied the deck is up to scratch, it’s time for Kim to get underneath the bridge – not a straightforward task when he’s the best part of 2m tall.
The concrete blocks supporting either end of the bridge are sturdy and sound – no concerns there, and in fact they’re still relatively white and clean after only a couple of years in situ. Kim points out a special layer of rubber between the concrete and the wood, inserted to minimise the risk of dampness and therefore rotting timber – and lengthen the life of the asset.
The main beams of the bridge are 15cm thick, straight and rigid, with no signs of rot, wear or damage. In these conditions, they could warp, but that’s some time away – if ever – given they’re made of specially treated timber.
It’s at the other end of the bridge, where there’s a much smaller gap below the deck, that Kim needs to crawl on the ground to get good look at the structure’s integrity and foundations. Another poke and a prod again with the scraper to make sure no bits are flaking off.
After about 25 minutes, the job is done on the 20-metre bridge. The Mangakara foot bridge has passed its inspection comfortably, and Kim is satisfied it’s safe for continued use.
We walk back up the track, and Kim talks about his strong sense familiarity of the assets, and what would happen if an asset needed a more advanced repair. His report would trigger a work order, which would bring other staff – including a structural engineer, if needed – into the picture to begin planning and design, before construction can be commissioned.
And with thousands of assets across the country to check out, the Inspectors are never short of work.