When we think of a fire catastrophe the Grenfell Tower Fire in London will always come to mind. Tragically 72 people lost their lives because of a weak fire protection regime. According to Dame Hackitt in her ‘Building a Safer Future’ Report systemic failure caused by several factors led to the devastating fire. Combustible cladding was not the only reason for the fire disaster; instead, factors such as ambiguities and inconsistencies in the regulatory framework; indifference to public safety issues by compromising quality and execution; lack of clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders involved; and inadequate regulatory oversight were responsible for the events that led to the fire.

Sadly, Australia is not immune to these issues. Based on historical data it can be said that fire safety systems in numbers of buildings in Australia are non-compliant and are at high risk of not protecting the occupants of a building in the event of fire.

This sad reality exists because of a legislative framework in some states which enables unqualified practitioners to design, install, maintain and test essential fire safety systems. Following is a comparison of what states require in regards to fire protection licensing.

As you can see the situation is at its worst in Western Australia. An unlicensed (and potentially unqualified) person can design and install a fire protection system in a high rise residential building where 300 people reside. In an ironic twist they must employ a licenced painter to paint the system’s pipes! In a submission to the WA Government NFIA provided a dozen examples of non-compliant fire protection systems in Western Australia that have been incorrectly installed and/or tested and subsequently signed off as being compliant and operable.

Our examples include a range of well populated buildings and a description of the fault. We identified when these faults would have occurred and found they were occurring right throughout the lifecycle of the systems. Importantly, in all cases the fault could render the system inoperable in the event of a fire.

NFIA believes that the first of the 4 Core Principles of Good Fire Protection Regulation is the registration of fire protection practitioners. NFIA believes that there must be a comprehensive system of contractor registration across all occupations involved in the design, installation, testing, commissioning and maintenance of fire protection systems in all Australian jurisdictions.

Registration of practitioners is a regulatory mechanism for providing public accountability. Licensing of fire protection contractors would provide:

  • Better protection for people and property in the event of a building fire;
  • Improved training and safety for fire protection workers;
  • Improved compliance with building fire safety regulations leading to reduced costs for owners, occupiers, government, emergency services and local governments;
  • Greater community confidence that work is performed by appropriately skilled workers to the prescribed standards; and
  • Reduced risks for fire fighters responding to fire emergencies.

NFIA is not alone in recommending that fire protection should be licenced. The recently released Shergold Weir Report: Assessment of the Effectiveness of Compliance and Enforcement Systems for the Building and Construction Industry across Australia recognises that there are certain occupations that all jurisdictions should register. One of which is a fire safety practitioner (Recommendation 1).

However not all licencing and registration schemes are created equal. A good licencing scheme (and therefore the other core principles of good fire protection regulation) must recognise appropriately trained fire protection practitioners. Any licensing scheme should be underpinned by a suitable qualifications and competencies framework and must align national training packages with licensing categories, scopes and prescribed activities. A good licencing scheme must be enforceable and above all should be government run. There will more about these issues and why they are important in later editions.

To create a good licensing system NFIA suggests that all Australian governments should look to Queensland which has the most detailed and mature fire protection licensing system in Australia. Queensland licencing is for the entire fire industry, including alarms. It is funded by industry through registration fee payments and is aligned with national qualifications. Registration is administered by the Queensland Building and Construction Commission (QBCC) and there are 12 unique Fire Licence classes with defined scope of works.

While the Queensland system isn’t perfect and can always be improved, it is the standard bearer for fire protection licensing in Australia and the challenge for other jurisdictions is to “harmonise” their licensing arrangements – or lack of – to the Queensland standard.