The recent Fire Australia Conference, the Australian fire protection industry’s annual opportunity to gather and discuss the important issues of the day, brought together national and global leaders.
Perhaps the most influential among them was keynote speaker Jim Pauley, president and CEO of the US-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). That organisation is known internationally for its long history of research-based innovation, code development and forward thinking. Many of the issues facing the US face other nations, including Australia.
According to Pauley, the future will be about managing an ageing population, more severe and frequent natural disasters - in particular bushfires - and the challenges presented from the renewable energy sector.
Our ageing population
It’s an established fact that modern medicine is keeping us alive longer and we are living more independently. People prefer to stay in their own homes but as they age, their ability to self-evacuate or manage their own fire risk will decrease.
Pauley says 25 per cent of the Australian population will be over 65 years of age by 2040. The fire protection industry will need to have more answers in this area. Smoke alarms may still alert older Australians to a fire, but that won’t manage the fire's spread or help residents with mobility issues if they need to move quickly out of a burning building.
The potential abounds for affordable sprinkler systems which will significantly increase survivability rates. At the conference, Graeme Leonard of Reliable Automatic Sprinklers in the UK spoke of some of the latest innovations. Reliable has completed a project looking into retrofitting sprinklers to existing high rise apartments and they have had considerable success. In fact, one elderly person’s life has already been saved from a fire when one of the systems was triggered following an electrical fire in a mobility scooter parked just outside the person’s home. The sprinklers stopped the fire spreading past the front door, almost certainly averting a tragedy.
It should also be noted that it’s not just our ageing population that are at risk. More people with disabilities are able to move to independent living thanks to support through initiatives like the National Disability Insurance Scheme. As with older people, the ability to quickly vacate a house if a fire occurs may be compromised and we must protect our most vulnerable using modern technology such as smoke alarms for the deaf or hard of hearing. Again, the potential for sprinklers is easy to see.
Severe and more frequent bushfires
Australia is one of the most bushfire-prone countries in the world, though the US is also experiencing severe ‘wildfire’ events. The severity and frequency of bushfires is growing. Each fire season has brought increased warnings about larger fuel loads and climate change creating more and more dangerous conditions.
"The Climate Institute estimates the total economic cost of disasters in Australia, including bushfires, exceeded $12 billion in 2012," Pauley said. "They further expect those costs to double by 2030 and to rise to an average of $23 billion per year by 2050.”
The fire protection industry will play a large role in managing this through increased bushfire protection measures. It will also play a major part in helping our community be better prepared with improvements in design and bushfire assessments under schemes such as FPA Australia’s Bushfire Planning and Design (BPAD).
If the threat of bushfire is growing, the people who give advice on its management have to be able to demonstrate that they have the experience, knowledge and skills to competently provide that advice. The BPAD accreditation scheme will help in ensuring that advice given on designing properties in bushfire-prone areas will come from professionals who can demonstrate that their expertise achieves an acceptable standard.
Renewable energy will play a major role in managing future energy needs, but it also presents issues for firefighters, particularly with the growth of the home solar panel industry.
Australia has one of the highest penetrations of renewable energy systems into residential properties in the world. Rooftops sporting solar panels are a common sight in many Australian suburbs as we try to reduce our reliance on traditional fossil fuels.
The risk is that during a fire, solar panels in particular continue to generate electricity. This puts our fire brigades, who generally fight fires with water, at increased risk.
"How do you safely shut off power to a system that is constantly generating electricity? How do you ventilate or navigate a rooftop that is completely covered with solar panels?" Pauley asked delegates.
There is also the issue of safe storage of lithium ion batteries warehoused in bulk as they await transport. Lithium ion batteries, like those used in Samsung’s Galaxy 7 phones, have had well-publicised flammability problems. Pauley’s NFPA colleague, Chris Dubay, provided research results of tests designed to understand how fires involving stored batteries could be managed.
With greater focus on electric cars and properties that store renewable energy in lithium ion battery walls, new techniques for managing the fire risk will have to be developed. Our first responders can’t be exposed to any more risk than is absolutely necessary.
The conference delegates were also fortunate to hear from Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) general manager Neil Savery, who discussed the key reforms he is leading to deliver a more accessible and understandable National Construction Code (NCC).
Having championed a significant change in the approach to make the NCC freely available online, the current ABCB leadership is proposing to simplify and improve the readability of the language used in the Code. This involves embarking on a thorough overhaul to make provisions clearer, but in addition to this, a holistic review of fire safety provisions that have been added to and tinkered with over two decades without a broader review of the strategy that the NCC should apply to a modern world.
Of course, the fire protection industry will need to rise to meet these and other challenges, but I have every confidence that industry members are capable of doing so. They have a long and proud history of innovation that has helped create communities that are safer from fire.