Growing future for quake restraint firm

STRAPPING LAD: Graham Nel, Disaster Prepare Chief Executive, is an expert in restraint.
STRAPPING LAD: Graham Nel, Disaster Prepare Chief Executive, is an expert in restraint.

A fishtank and rocky truck trips were vital in developing QuakeFlex restraints to keep bulky items attached to a wall during an earthquake.

Members of the New Zealand Society For Earthquake Engineering, the Tawa-based micro-business Disaster Prepare was established three years ago.

It provides a safety audit of buildings to assess items likely to injure or block exits during an earthquake. A risk profile is collated and a quote provided on the cost of making the interior of a building safer by attaching furniture to the wall.

They use various restraints but their innovative QuakeFlex system is the one that has garnered the most attention - and is a finalist in The Dominion Post-sponsored Gold Awards to be held next month.

QuakeFlex has already won the Innovation section at the 2013 Porirua Westpac Business Excellence awards, while Disaster Prepare won the Supreme Award.

The gestation of QuakeFlex started after the Canterbury earthquakes highlighted problems with traditional restraints.

Chief executive Graham Nel said fixed restraints under certain conditions can be too rigid, causing them to break, while some quick-release restraints can rock violently, causing them to fail.

"When I started the company three years ago I was fairly underwhelmed with the products that were available. They were ugly, they were dated, and they tended to be imported."

One day while out on a job with a couple of contractors Nel said they had a eureka moment.

"We had to come up with a solution for someone's fishtank using metal strapping. The initial response was what if we can use a metal product that can be rigid enough to be a fixed restraint but flexible enough to be used as a quick release restraint."

His initial market research found that homeowners wanted restraints that were reasonably priced and weren't ugly.

Commercial clients required something with a quick release capability which was made from non-porous materials so they could be used in health facilities which require sanitisation.

Combining these requirements, Lower Hutt's NZ Spring Works came up with handmade prototypes for testing, Nel said.

"To keep costs down we did some concept testing in the back of a truck on some fairly vigorous roads, and we managed to replicate the shaking in Christchurch [earthquake] of 2.2 vertical and 1.6 lateral Gs [G-Force].

"There were lots of raised eyebrows in that we could develop those sorts of Gs in the back of a truck and that the product, despite being such a simple product, held up so successfully."

QuakeFlex has been independently tested and between 3000 and 4000 pairs have been installed, with GNS Science being the company's first commercial customer.

But there is also a large domestic market which Nel has in his sights through a partnership with Wellington City Council which is promoting QuakeFlex to homeowners for $100 per household.

"It's part of our community resilience programme. We are really focused on doing work with and for the community."

What you need to secure in case of an earthquake is simple, Nel said. "If its big, heavy or valuable it needs to be secured."

While Disaster Prepare currently has Nel and six contractors on board, there are plans to employ a couple more staff including an operations manager. KPMG is helping with a five-year strategic plan which includes exploring export opportunities.

The Dominion Post