Shergold/Weir in their Building Confidence Report (BCR) argued there is a need in Australia for a lift in “standards, competency and integrity”, including in fire safety engineering.
The BCR authors added that “It is essential that each jurisdiction have a public strategy for proactively auditing the design, certification and construction of commercial buildings with a view to improving regulatory oversight, education and enforcement.
In response to the BCR, the Warren Centre at the University of Sydney has now almost completed its evidence-based project on “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”. This research has recommended new roles and updated competencies for fire safety engineers along with proposals for regulatory reform, including professional engineering registration by states and territories.
However, if community trust and real benefits for property owners in terms of building quality and safety are to be realized from these reforms, then improved opportunities for quality education of fire safety engineers is one of the keys to increased competency.
Fire Safety Engineering Education
The Competencies Report, just released by the Warren Centre, highlights the fact that the necessary competencies come from a combination of appropriate academic education and supervised professional experience. However, in Australia fire safety engineering has received insufficient attention from the university sector, and the lack of quality graduates is being keenly felt by major consulting firms, fire authorities and other fire protection firms.
At the present time, as discussed in the Warren Centre “Education Report” there is only one fire safety engineering course in Australia that that has gone through the process of accreditation with Engineers Australia. This is at the University of Queensland. We have, or have had, fire safety engineering courses at Victoria University and Western Sydney University but they have not been accredited. Some other fire safety engineers have undertaken their professional education at the University of Canterbury in NZ or other overseas institutions. But the current demand for degree exit level graduates in Fire Safety Engineering is not being met.
In Victoria, building surveyors who are certifying performance-based fire safety design have been undertaking the graduate certificate in fire safety engineering at Victoria University. However, in some other states and territories, little training in fire safety engineering is provided to certifiers and is another education imperative.
The situation is even more problematic with architects as almost all courses of architecture in Australia and internationally teach very little if any fire safety design or fire safety engineering principles.
One further issue highlighted has been the lack of education and training of many architects, engineers and other building practitioners on the basic structure, principles and technical details of the National Construction Code (NCC). This need for NCC training was Recommendation #3 in the BCR.
NCC training is of particular concern for fire safety since some 60% of the clauses in the NCC relate to fire safety provisions. It is good to see that the ABCB has responded with new NCC course offerings soon to be launched. Shergold/Weir suggest that NCC training should be a compulsory CPD requirement for all registered practitioners in building design and construction.
Importance of Education
It is self-evident that if fire safety engineers do not have access to quality education in fire safety engineering and regular CPD then designs of buildings and infrastructure may not have sufficient levels of safety and the lives of the public and fire fighters may be at risk.
Equally important is that architects, certifiers and other designers at least need to have an understanding of the critical concepts of fire safety engineering in order to work effectively with fire safety engineers and assist in implementation of fire safety features through design documentation, construction and handover.
For too long in Australia, fire safety design solutions for buildings have in many cases been created by architects, certifiers and others without this critical fire safety knowledge. Performance Solutions have been developed and handed to fire safety engineers to undertake analysis to justify their acceptance for building approval, often without all parties having a full understanding of the complete building design and the implications of particular fire safety solutions.
This is set to change. Responding again to the BCR recommendations, the Warren Centre Roles Report makes it clear that fire safety engineers, who have specialist knowledge and skills in this field, should take the lead role in creative fire safety design and be involved from concept design through construction and commissioning to facility handover to the owners. Much more cost-effective and safer building designs will result.
This far more holistic and creative design role will necessitate major changes in fire safety engineering education, as detailed in the Warren Centre’s Professional Development Report soon to be released. Accredited University courses will have to address not only new knowledge but also new skills and professional attributes with a pedagogy or method of teaching which emphasizes the design process, problem solving and innovation, and not just fire protection technology, fire modelling and fire safety engineering analysis.
New Education Initiatives
The Professional Development Report from the Warren Centre suggests a range of short term and longer-term activities to lift the quality of fire safety engineering education at universities and build the capacity needed around Australia.
The drivers for more graduates and demand for capacity building in fire safety engineering are coming from:
- A push by governments in the post COVID-19 period for more building and infrastructure projects, all of which involve fire safety
- New professional engineering registration requirements and enforcement action in NSW and Victoria for fire safety engineers to match Queensland regulations which will cut out the unqualified and poorly performing practitioners who will not now be able to achieve registration
- New extended roles for fire safety engineers to be involved from concept design through to project handover, especially through construction inspections and commissioning
This is going to require existing universities and other universities to develop new education offerings and short courses based on the new competencies to meet these resource demands. It is envisaged that a quality university program in fire safety engineering will be required in Brisbane (which already has the accredited UQ course), Sydney, Melbourne and possibly Perth as a minimum. But in the current environment, funding support for the universities from the profession, industry and governments will be the key.
To assist in this process, the Warren Centre has proposed the formation of an Australian Education Committee involving interested universities, Engineers Australia and its Society of Fire Safety, governments and other industry bodies and professional organizations. This will help universities quantify the resource demand, set the education principles, and suggest sources of funding support. A key initiative proposed is a co-operative education model in the shorter term where universities can share the teaching based on their respective academic strengths rather than having to develop complete courses.
We are on the verge of an exciting new era in education of fire safety engineers in Australia. There are major career opportunities and a demand which needs to be matched by new university courses and graduate programs. Education is one of the keys to engineering competency and the fire safety of the Australians in buildings and infrastructure in the future. All parties need to step up to make this happen.
Note: All Warren Centre reports on regulatory controls, education and accreditation, technical methods, roles and competencies can be downloaded for free from the Warren Centre website – https://thewarrencentre.org.au/project/fire-safety-engineering/
By Peter Johnson, David Lange and Ashley Brinson
Peter Johnson is a Principal and Fellow in fire safety engineering at the global consulting firm of Arup and a research leader for the Warren Centre project on “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”.
Dr David Lange – Senior Lecturer in Structural Engineering – University of Queensland
Ashley Brinson – Chief Executive Officer – Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering – University of Sydney.