When owners of one Sydney apartment complex upgraded the safety of their building following a local council request for an annual fire management statement, they were disappointed with the outcome.
Shoddy conduit work above the fire panel in the entry foyer saw four conduits coming into a two-way junction box. The distance between the fire panel in the entry foyer and the balustrade in the stairs was also less than the one metre required for egress under the National Construction Code (NCC).
Whilst much attention has surrounded cladding, examples such as this highlight dangers associated with the ability of almost anyone to perform fire protection work without needing to demonstrate that they have the knowledge or competency to do so.
Throughout much of Australia, there are requirements in place about who can perform high level tasks such as developing a performance solution for fire protection under the NCC and preparing plans for new or modified fire safety systems within buildings. In New South Wales, for example, you have to be a ‘competent fire safety practitioner’ to do these things.
The situation is different, however, for routine tasks. This includes jobs such as installing fire protection equipment or putting in place occupancy separations to help ensure that fires which start within one building compartment are unable to spread to other compartments.
In Queensland, this part of the industry is heavily regulated. Those who install, restore, prepare or maintain any part of a fire protection system need to be licensed. This is working well. Since 2013, only three practitioners have been prosecuted for unlicensed fire protection work. This is despite the Queensland Building and Construction Commission typically undertaking around 300 licence spot checks each year.
Elsewhere, things are different. In Victoria, only those who install automatic sprinkler systems need a licence (they need to be licensed under plumbing legislation). In NSW, no trade licensing classes exist for fire protection.
Scott Williams, chief executive officer of the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPA Australia), says the lack of minimum competency requirements is worrying.
He says the industry has tried to address this by developing its own accreditation scheme. This, however, is voluntary.
“Fire Protection Association Australia has long advocated for a professional industry with minimum competency requirements to ensure work is being done consistently, safely and in compliance with relevant regulations,” Williams told Sourceable in a written response to questions.
“With the majority of work undertaken in the industry currently requiring no minimum competencies, accreditation or registration of practitioners, the quality of work can vary dramatically.
“FPA Australia believe that all roles and responsibilities in the fire protection industry must be clearly defined and underpinned by minimum competencies with ongoing professional development.”
Sahil Bhasin, national general manager of property reporting and facilities management company Roscon, says problems with workmanship are evident in several areas.
First, there are cases where the wrong types of fire extinguishers have been used. Fire extinguishers, Bhasin says, come in different varieties, and can contain wet chemicals, water, foam, powder, carbon dioxide or vaporising liquid. Water extinguishers, for example, may be installed where in fact a powder, foam or carbon dioxide one is needed.
Consequences can be serious. A carbon dioxide fire extinguisher would be ineffective, Bhasin says, against a fire involving lots of oils in a fish and chip shop. Conversely, a wet chemical extinguisher – meant for fires involving fat and oils – would be useless and dangerous in a switchboard room where carbon dioxide or dry powder ones are needed.
Second, Bhasin says problems occur where penetrations are not properly sealed. At their core, Bhasin says fire engineering strategies aim to contain fires within the compartment in which they originate. Where a fire starts in the basement, for example, features such as fire doors at lift entrances, sealing of penetrations and the carpark being made of concrete should mean the fire cannot go up to the level above.
Likewise, fire doors should contain fires which originate within a single apartment to that apartment. Any penetration which is not properly sealed defeats this objective and provides a path for fire to spread beyond the compartment of its origin.
According to Bhasin, the skills, knowledge and workmanship of those who perform fire protection work is critical. Under various Australian standards such as AS1851, AS 1940, AS 2293 and AS 2845, tests are to be carried out on a periodic basis for fire sprinklers, fire pumps, fire hydrants, fire detection and alarm systems, special hazard systems, fire hoses and reels, portable fire extinguishers, fire blankets, passive fire systems (fire doors and walls), foam concentration and emergency lighting. Nevertheless, he says issues such as the sealing of penetrations are generally not known until there is an actual fire. Thus the proper functioning of this sealing rests upon the quality of workmanship at the time of the building’s construction and/or renovation.
Speaking primarily from a Victorian perspective, Bhasin would like action in two areas.
First, anyone who performs fire protection work should be required to undergo training and certification. In Victoria, Bhasin says barriers to entry are extremely low and almost anyone can perform fire protection work. The main exception is that plumbing legislation requires those who install sprinkler systems need to be licenced and electricians to test and replace exit lights.
Second, he would like greater enforcement of a current requirement of building owners to produce an annual essential safety measures (ESM) report. Courtesy of a hollowing out of municipal surveying departments following the privatisation of the building surveyor function, Bhasin says a lack of resources has meant that enforcement with regard to ESMs is weak. As a result, few building owners actually prepare or obtain an ESM report.
Were resources to be beefed up and checks of these reports to become widespread, he says behaviour would change.
Williams, meanwhile, wants minimum competency requirements accompanied by national consistency in regulations and more widely available training and qualifications.
At the moment, he says there is a lack of regulatory compliance and enforcement throughout the building industry as a whole. He stresses that many in the industry do good work. Those not suitably educated and diligent in their work, he says, are a ‘small minority’.
“It seems there is significant trust placed that individuals will always do the right thing, rather than ensuring there is a robust framework that monitors and enforces compliance,” he said.
“A requirement for accreditation and registration of all practitioners will ultimately lead to safer buildings.”