Often, when people think about a building’s fire protection system they think about its alarm and sprinkler systems.

In reality, it is much more.  It is a collaboration of different components and parts that may be considered Active Fire Protection or Passive Fire Protection.

Put simply, active fire protection systems are those that through their actions, limit and put out the fire. In a high-rise apartment building for example, the primary life-saving fire protection component is the sprinkler system. Indeed, in most commercial building types, the sprinkler system is the core fire protection element. Other actions may be manually operated, like a fire extinguisher or automatic, like a sprinkler, but either way they require some kind of action. Active Fire Protection includes fire/smoke detection and alarm systems, sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers and emergency lighting as well as equipment such as hydrants provided for use by firefighters.

Passive fire protection, on the other hand relies on elements that help prevent the spread of fire and smoke from one room to the next by compartmentalizing a building. These systems help to limit the amount of damage done to a building and provide its occupants more time for evacuation. Systems include fire/smoke dampers which are used to prevent the spread of fire/smoke throughout the building through its ductwork and fire doors, and fire walls/floors which help to compartmentalize a building.

As buildings get more complex so does the interaction between active and passive fire protection systems.  Education is increasingly becoming a vital component of fire protection as well.  To view fire protection as just the aggregation of the individual compartments is to be unaware of how their interplay actually works, and is not an appropriate construct in the fire protection context.  Fire protection systems are a series of interlocking and overlapping components and connections, each dependent on the other for the system to be effective.

For example, a fire sprinkler system is often a building’s first active defence against a fire and its potential travel path.  Yet it must also work together with the alarm system that will notify the building’s inhabitants, fire services and other stakeholders to the incident. Then there are the passive fire protection measures that further slow the fire’s progress.

A fire protection system is not ‘just’ a fire protection system though.  Every system, like a fingerprint is unique.  Why? Every building is slightly different, building materials vary, mains water pressures vary and so on. An open plan office building with 50 storeys is different to a 50 storey residential tower which is different again to a mixed use 50 storey tower. Of course these structures are also vastly different to a tunnel carrying vehicular traffic and a health care or education facility.

Different building classes and use of buildings mean the fire protection requirements for any given structure vary. There is a multitude of Australian Standards, (AS), Australian/New Zealand Standards (AS/NZS), International Organisational Standards (ISO), National Construction Code, guidelines, legislation and regulations devoted to fire protection.

All these requirements are underpinned by the core principles of 1) limiting, supressing and extinguishing fire 2) protecting people from death or injury and 3) enabling all inhabitants to safely evacuate the structure without injury.

Some examples of the components that make up a fire protection system:

Fire Protection systems and their correct design, installation and maintenance are critical for protecting people, buildings and assets in the event of a fire. Therefore, it is imperative that all aspects of fire protection work are carried out by competent practitioners with the appropriate qualifications and credentials.

In this decade alone, we’ve seen two clear examples of properly installed and maintained fire protection systems preventing a possible catastrophe. In November 2014 the Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne demonstrated the value of a compliant, fully functional fire protection system.  The activated sprinkler system helped prevent the fire from penetrating the internal structure enabling over 500 people to safely evacuate and saving the building from collapse despite the fire roaring with a speed and ferocity not seen before in the Australian built environment.  In August 2018 the activated sprinkler in an electrical riser prevented the spread of fire in a multistorey office tower in Melbourne’s CBD that was also encased in combustible cladding.

However, based on historical data and relatively recent emerging ‘system defect’ data it can be said that fire safety systems in numbers of buildings in Australia are non-compliant and are at high risk of not protecting the occupants of a building in the event of fire.

Unfortunately, inadequate/noncompliant fire protection systems can result in tragedy:

  • Victoria – Kew Cottage 7 April 1996, 9 lives lost
  • Queensland – Childers Backpacker Hostel 23 June 2003, 15 lives lost
  • New South Wales – Bankstown apartment fire 7 April 1996, 1 life lost

NFIA has been at the forefront of the issue of fire protection non-compliance for the last 20 years and has provided many submissions to various reviews including Shergold/Weir during this time which have examined non-compliance, self-certification, accreditation and licensing within the Australian building and construction industry.

Despite these reviews and the industry’s expert input, very little has changed and we continue to tolerate non-compliant systems which could result in a higher risk to people and property in Australia in the event of a fire. This sad reality exists because of a legislative framework in some states which enables unqualified or under qualified practitioners to design, install, maintain and test essential fire safety systems.

What we have found though, is that change often follows a fire disaster. Coroners’ recommendations and other forms of investigative outcomes emerge and regulators then make changes to strengthen the fire safety framework for the community.

We recently saw this play out in England.  The consequences of a weak fire protection regime were highlighted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, England. In response to this tragedy the local Council committed to installing fire protection systems in all 213 of their residential buildings.

Queensland responded to the Childers Backpacker Hostel fire deaths by creating the benchmark regulatory system for fire protection in Australia with the key features being a fire protection licensing system for contractors and workers that cover fire protection design, installation, certification and service activities.

NFIA believes that there are 4 Core Principles of Good Fire Protection Regulation

1) Registration of Fire Protection Practitioners

The biggest impediment to ensuring fire protection systems are properly designed, installed, inspected and maintained is a lack of registration or licensing of fire protection practitioners in many Australian jurisdictions.

Across the nation, at its worst there exists no registration for fire safety practitioners even though life safety is at risk if the system is inoperable; in Western Australia for example, the system’s pipes must by law be painted by a licenced painter but generally all other aspects of the fire protection system is open to anyone to design, install, certify and service.   NFIA has provided examples of non-compliant fire protection systems  to various jurisdictions around Australia that have been incorrectly installed and/or tested and subsequently signed off as being compliant and operable.

Our examples include government buildings, office buildings, high rise residential apartment buildings and aged care facilities. We’ve pointed out  obvious faults that could render the system inoperable in the event of a fire. We’ve identified when these faults would have occurred and while some are examples of non-compliant design or installation, others are a result of general wear and tear and are faults which should have been identified during routine and maintenance checks.

There must be a comprehensive system of contractor registration across all occupations involved in the design, installation, testing, commissioning and maintenance of fire protection systems in Australia.

The Queensland Government responded to the Childers Backpacker Hostel fire deaths by creating the most robust regulatory system for fire protection in Australia. NFIA suggests implementing a similar licensing scheme to that which is currently operating in Queensland, across all jurisdictions.

2) Appropriately Trained Fire Protection Practitioners

NFIA’s view has always been that the design, installation and maintenance of fire protection systems and their subsequent certification should only be carried out by those with appropriate skills, knowledge and qualifications. Therefore any licensing scheme should be underpinned by a suitable qualifications and competencies framework.

NFIA believes any robust licensing scheme must align national training packages with licensing categories, scopes and prescribed activities. The current Australian training framework provides fire protection qualifications at Certificate II, Certificate III, Certificate IV and Certificate V. These Qualifications are on the National Training Register and the organisations delivering them are registered with ASQA (The Australian Skills Quality Authority).

However not all jurisdictions require these nationally recognised qualifications. For example, NSW is working towards allowing  a form of industry association accreditation for individuals who may have only limited fire protection systems education at best. NFIA has serious concerns about pseudo qualifications – that are actually proprietary in house training courses with significant gaps in coverage – becoming a misleading and mediocre benchmark for such an important life and death issue as building fire safety.

3) Enforceable

If we introduce an independent, standard, consistent national registration system, then we must align it with an independent, standard and consistent compliance and policing system.

NFIA data says that only approximately 20% of submitted fire protection system defects are generally acted on by building owners because there is little enforcement of building owner lodgement of required annual reporting, within the required timeframe.

Low defect rectification levels in an environment without any genuine policing and penalty, disincentivises quality work and emboldens cowboy operators. The solution is to strengthen building owners’ accountability for the fire safety of their building by enabling the regulator to impose robust penalties for non-compliance with annual building owner reporting requirements plus robust penalties for not acting on defect rectification reporting by the fire protection service provider.

4) Government Run

NFIA is strongly opposed to any body other than Government acting as the fire protection regulator. We cannot support the outsourcing of fire protection regulation and enforcement to an industry association or similar private enterprise entity where in effect the members are regulating the members and their potential members. A robust registration system should be underpinned by an independent registration authority and only Government should be performing this role; private enterprise and industry association’s role is to provide industry feedback, input, intel, technical advice to the regulator to enable it to its best job possible.

As it currently stands under NSW legislation, each NSW private industry accrediting authority – and the legislation allows for multiple authorities to perform the accreditation work – may decide itself the categories of accreditation and the qualifications that are required for any individual applying in any registered practitioner category. So you could have a situation where multiple accrediting authorities require different qualifications in the same practitioner category of registration.

How does an outcome like this promote good fire protection and reduce fire safety risk?

Why should the community not expect to have the same high standard of fire protection regardless of where they live?

We can consistently register electricians and plumbers generally to the same standards across Australia, why do we not seek to extend that same level of regulation to fire protection?