A national approach to an issue, especially when dealing with safety, is an ideal outcome. It avoids confusion, improves effectiveness and provides certainty no matter where you are.

High on everyone’s priority list, especially at Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia), is smoke alarms.

Every firefighting agency in Australia, and around the world, will tell you that working smoke alarms save lives, and they do. For a relatively low cost, there will be a highly positive safety outcome. According to Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), you are 57 per cent more likely to suffer property loss or damage without one, 28 per cent more likely to be injured and four times more likely to die (MFB – only working smoke alarms save lives).

It’s incongruous then that the states and territories differ so greatly with regard to how they address the choice, installation and maintenance of smoke alarms.

The Building Code of Australia (National Construction Code) requirements work well as a minimum but only capture new construction. There are an estimated 9 million dwellings across Australia and how people are protected against fire in existing properties too often remains the personal responsibility of occupants who may not have the necessary knowledge to choose the most appropriate type of alarm or determine where it is best installed to give the greatest protection.

For example, in the ACT, you don’t need a smoke alarm unless you’re building a new residence. In Tasmania, you only need one if you’re renting your home. In Western Australia, you only need smoke alarms in tenanted, hired or sold buildings.

Come the New Year, in Queensland it will be a legal requirement for all dwellings to have a working smoke alarm with new laws that mandate the type of smoke alarm (photoelectric), where it must be installed and how it is powered. These are measures mandated following recommendations made after the 2011 Slacks Creek fire inquiry. Tragically, 11 people died in that fire, and the lack of a working smoke alarm was a direct contributor to the death toll.

But again, instead of having a consistent national approach, one state is taking its own action. Would it not have been better if there were a national approach by all jurisdictions to ensure consistency for the community irrespective of where you live in Australia?

In FPA, Australia’s submission to the Senate Inquiry on the use of smoke alarms to prevent fire and smoke related deaths, it was noted that, given the greatest risk to life was a smouldering fire as people slept, a photoelectric smoke alarm was most appropriate and needed to be situated to give occupants the best chance of getting out.

Earlier this year, the report from this Senate Inquiry was released. Included among its seven recommendations was Recommendation 3: “that the National Construction Code is amended to require the installation of interconnected, and preferably mains powered, photoelectric smoke alarms, supplemented where appropriate by ionisation smoke alarms, in every residential property and specify the type of smoke alarm to be used at different locations within each residential property, taking into account the different smoke detection properties of photoelectric and ionisation smoke alarms.”

The report goes on to say: “The committee recommends, to give effect to Recommendation 3, that all state and territory governments adopt the amended National Construction Code and agree to apply [its smoke alarm requirements] to all residential properties, irrespective of the age of a property.”

FPA Australia welcomes the Senate Inquiry’s report and its recommendations which have much in common with the Association’s Position Statement (PS01) released in May 2011. However, these are only recommendations. They carry no legal weight and can only have real impact if the state and territory governments get behind them.

Perhaps the Inquiry Committee members had that in mind when they wrote Recommendation 7:

“In the event Australian governments are unwilling to amend the National Construction Code and apply it to all building stock irrespective of classification and age, the committee recommends that they consider implementing a nation-wide smoke alarm household installation scheme that includes consultation with:

  • fire and emergency services, housing providers and the real estate agency industry; and
  • individuals and organisations working with vulnerable members of the community.”

As part of its submission, FPA Australia also raised the issue of smoke alarm maintenance. As the brigades say, it is only ‘working’ smoke alarms that save lives. Even interconnected photoelectric alarms wired to the mains power supply will require periodic maintenance to ensure they remain effective.

As with the installation of a smoke alarm, there should be a legislated requirement to ensure that the device is properly and routinely maintained by an accredited fire protection industry technician.

By ensuring that legislative requirements are provided for both new and existing residential buildings detailing the necessary requirements to ensure that smoke alarms are installed appropriately to ensure they achieve their purpose (and smoke alarms are maintained to ensure their e effective operation), state and territory governments can likely reduce the smoke and fire related injuries and deaths and associated damage to property that residential fires cause.

FPA Australia acknowledges the leadership shown by the Queensland Government’s introduction of this new legislation, and will continue to advocate for a uniform national approach on this important issue. There are an estimated 100 deaths a year through residential fires nationally. That number can be reduced with the application of a nationally consistent and considered approach.