The fires in the Lacrosse and Neo 200 buildings in Australia and the Grenfell Tower fire in London shook the building and construction industry to its core.

The structural failures in the Opal Towers and the Mascot Towers simply reinforced the need for a complete overhaul of the building regulations, professional engineering practices, certification and control of construction materials.

Unsurprisingly, both the Hackitt report in the UK and the Shergold/Weir “Building Confidence Report” in Australia directed a good deal of their attention to the role and competence of fire safety engineers.

Hackitt suggested a lack of ‘knowledge, skills and experience” should be met with “increased levels of competency” in order to “drive a shift in culture’ in the construction industry, and in fire safety engineering in particular.

Likewise, Shergold/Weir suggested there was an urgent need in Australia for a lift in “standards, competency and integrity”, with national consistency of registration of engineers, including fire safety engineers, and additional “competency and experience requirements”.

The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering has been conducting independent, evidence-based research into the regulatory controls, future role, competency, education, and audit and enforcement of fire safety engineers across Australia in a project entitled “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”.

A key question to answer was why do we need to better define competencies for fire safety engineering? In a sense, the answer is obvious, given the fires and failures of buildings, and the poor quality and safety identified through a number of Government enquiries. However, the recognition for competency improvement came from the fire safety engineers themselves, who called for the Warren Centre research even before the Grenfell Building fire.

The need for reform was also demonstrated through some survey research carried out by Brian Meacham and published internationally in 2019. He suggested that a very significant percentage of fire safety designs and reviews in Australia and globally were undertaken by practitioners who were unqualified as fire safety engineers.

There are clear benefits across the whole built environment if we could achieve proper levels of competency and fully professional practice, with early participation of fire safety engineers in design processes. These benefits have again been highlighted by Hackitt and Shergold/Weir and in the Warren Centre reports.

These benefits include:

  • More innovative but robust design solutions
  • Increases in design and construction productivity
  • The “golden thread “of data with transparency of information and a clear audit trail
  • More cost-effective construction
  • Lower life cycle costs for asset management
  • Improved quality and safety outcomes for building owners, managers, and occupants
  • A restoration of trust and confidence in the building industry

If we don’t have significant reforms in fire safety and other aspects of building and construction, we will continue with poor quality buildings, continuing significant fire safety and other risks, and, as Hackitt has stated and Shergold/Weir has concurred, we will be left with “a culture and regulatory system not fit for purpose”.

Based directly on the recommendations of Hackitt and Shergold/Weir reports, the Warren Centre has developed a new set of roles for fire safety engineers, including those undertaking designs, independent peer review and working within the fire authorities.

These new roles demand that new competencies for future practice be developed to meet these new role definitions. The roles include working from concept design through to handover, addressing all fires safety NCC Performance Requirements holistically, and involvement in construction inspections, commissioning and handover.

The competencies which have been used up to now for professional accreditation of fire safety engineers by Engineers Australia and the Institution of Fire Engineers, on which state and territory registration schemes depend, are ones developed and adopted 25 years ago. They are simply 18 statements of fire safety knowledge, which are not written in modern competency language. They are completely unsuitable for a radically different and modern performance based building code and ever changing built environment with new materials and technologies and innovative architectural designs.

As a result, a key research task of the Warren Centre has been to develop a whole new competency framework for fire safety engineers. This work is encapsulated in a Warren Centre “Competencies Report” based on world’s best practice, including that of the International Engineering Alliance (IEA). The competencies follow the Stage 1 and Stage 2 competency framework now used by Engineers Australia to address learnings gained through academic qualifications and professional experience. The report covers the need for continuing professional development (CPD) and the requirement for regular auditing of competency.

These new competencies address not only subject specific knowledge, but also skills, and personal and professional attributes, including ethics. The competencies include:

  • Development of design solutions
  • Problem analysis
  • Environment and sustainability
  • Project management and communication
  • Stakeholder consultation
  • Legal and regulatory requirements

All are set in the context of fire safety engineering with indicators of attainment with examples such as:

  • Understanding of fire dynamics and fire development
  • Problem solving using CFD
  • Human behaviour in fire
  • Fire performance of structures
  • Fire brigade intervention and suppression

The next step is to have this complete competency framework, CPD and new assessment criteria adopted by Engineers Australia (EA) for their National Engineers Register (NER) scheme and also have IFE adopt it similarly.  Given the Warren Centre has been working closely with EA and IFE, it is expected that adoption should occur reasonably rapidly.

In turn, the state and territory regulators need to incorporate the competency changes in NER and IFE accreditation into their registration schemes for fire safety engineers. And the education institutions such as the University of Queensland need to adjust their academic programs in fire safety engineering to deliver the Stage 1 competencies and grow the number of graduates to meet the professional demand.

The Warren Centre project on “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering” is nearing completion, and the three final reports with detailed recommendations are well under way. The reports are wide reaching, but a significant lift in competency and standard of ethics of fire safety engineers is vital to help transform the culture and safety outcomes for buildings in Australia.

(Note: All Warren Centre reports on regulatory controls, education and accreditation, technical methods, roles and competencies are freely available.)

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”.