The New South Wales Government is finally biting the bullet on rewriting the Building Professionals Act, the law governing the way buildings in the state are certified and deemed to be fire safe.
The decision follows the fatal 2012 Bankstown fire in an apartment block which had a litany of certification problems and a subsequent government review of the building certification process.
A young woman who was forced to leap from a window on the burning fifth storey of the Euro Terrace apartments died, with another young woman badly injured. When the NSW Deputy Coroner investigated the circumstances of the death he found significant failings in the current regulation of fire protection equipment and systems.
The building was 10 centimetres short of the 25-metre height where sprinklers become mandatory in units. The Deputy Coroner said sprinklers in the unit would have given the two women time to be rescued.
The inquest heard evidence that fire safety problems with the building had been identified in 2010 but nothing substantial had been done to improve it by the time of the fire.
The government then commissioned the review by former Treasury Secretary Michael Lambert who found practices for ensuring apartment fire safety were "totally ineffectual" and had led to the approval of unsafe buildings.
The government is finally acting on his report from last October, which was highly critical of the way in which commercial and apartment buildings in NSW are certified and deemed to be fire safe.
One of the changes recommended is more frequent audits and checks against building owners choosing and paying for their own certifiers.
This is long overdue. These arrangements create a conflict of interest. Allowing owners to choose and remunerate their certifier has the potential for abuse. Certifiers may choose to look the other way when the building owned by a developer who is paying them regularly has a fault which needs rectification.
There is also the issue of the skills of the certifiers. There is an absence of required qualifications and accreditation of people carrying out critical life-saving fire protection work which must be addressed. There needs to be regulation surrounding the accreditation of people working in the fire protection industry.
The owners of apartment buildings must be aware they have a role to play in keeping their building fire safe. They must be educated around the need to maintain and comply with fire standards.
This means ensuring their buildings have effective fire maintenance schemes with detection systems and other fire safety installations, such as extinguishers, hoses, exit lights and fire doors well maintained and up-to-date. Access to fire escapes must be clear at all times, with appropriate evacuation signage directing residents to exits.
Managing agents are accountable for the buildings they oversee, ensuring that fire safety standards are upheld and the fire risk assessment needs to be periodically reviewed.
Each year a qualified person such as a fire engineer or building surveyor must inspect the fire safety measures and provide a Fire Safety Installation Certificate to the owners. The annual Fire Safety Statement must be provided to the council and the NSW Fire Brigades, and must be prominently displayed in the strata building.
There are a number of older buildings which may not currently be subject to these requirements. However, many of these buildings will be subject to a development consent, construction certificate or fire safety order at a future date which may incorporate these requirements. It is up to owners and managing agents to ascertain what is required. For older buildings that have not had a Fire Safety Schedule, a fire safety consultant can be engaged to conduct an audit on the building, to report on what is there and to suggest upgraded fire safety measures.
There is now greater emphasis on the records and evidence required by building owners to demonstrate regulatory compliance.
The New South Wales government says it will pursue more than 70 suggested changes. We look forward to their implementation.