Don’t Let Your Luck Run Out On Fire Safety

Monday, July 27th, 2015
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Late last year, a late night cigarette discarded on an eighth-floor balcony of the Lacrosse Apartments in the Docklands sparked a fire that licked the exterior walls up to the full height of the 23-storey building. Luckily, all residents were safely evacuated and no one was hurt.

We should not be relying on luck when it comes to fire safety; we should be relying on strict regulatory control and good engineering.

The Building Code of Australia, much of which deals with fire safety, can be traced back to the Great Fire of London, when a small fire consumed a bakery before spreading rapidly across the city. The fire destroyed thousands of houses and killed an unknown number of citizens. Once the smoke dissipated, rules were hastily laid to control building construction. Political will was forged and fire safety became law. As time went by, more and more requirements were thrown into the hotchpotch of rules based on guesswork, judgement, and political pressure.

However, present day buildings are growing taller, complexes are sprawling wider and building materials with unpronounceable names have become commonplace. Design and construction processes are inextricably intertwined. With this fast-moving development and laden by other burdens, prescriptive building regulations struggle to keep up.

These regulations read like recipes that tell you which ingredients to include and how much – they cannot cope with the complexity of modern buildings.

In the mid-1990s, there was concerted push for reform in recognition of the limitations of the recipe approach, which led to the introduction of a performance-based engineered approach.

In this more flexible approach, a fire safety engineer designs and evaluates a building based on scientific and engineering knowledge in a measurable and repeatable way. Using our culinary analogy, performance-based design is like cooking a dish based on how the dish should taste rather than following a strict recipe.

Any cook, even an amateur, can follow a recipe to cook a dish, but it takes a skilled and experienced chef to cook and serve a unique, restaurant-grade dish based on taste. Likewise, the development of unique, performance-based fire safety solutions is the role of experienced professional fire safety engineers.

Presently, only a few states have their legislative requirements for fire safety engineering designers to be accredited; other states have none at all. Engineers Australia maintains a registration framework for fire safety engineering with the highest professional standards. This registration is widely recognised but not mandatory.

Even with this new, more flexible approach, the urgency for changes to Building Regulations remains high, if not higher.

The Australian Constitution has given each State and Territory the responsibility of regulating the building activities in their jurisdictions. This means we have eight separate building regulation systems in the country, each with varying levels of control of the process of how buildings are designed, certified and approved.

This results in a hotchpotch of building regulations and a varying quality of fire safety engineering across the country. And depending on the regulations where you are, your order could be cooked by a chef, a cook or an amateur.

Everyone agrees fire safety is far more important than nailing the latest Masterchef dish – in many cases it is a matter of life and death. Another cigarette discarded in another building under different circumstances might lead to a very different outcome than to the Lacrosse Apartments.

We must not rely on luck but on engineering expertise and strong building regulations.

We need a system that is reliable and dependable. We need the building regulations of each State and Territory to legislate control on the building process of design, certification and approval.

We need legislation to better control the building process and for all fire safety engineers to be properly accredited throughout the country.

Not doing so is a recipe for disaster.

By Dr Weng Poh, The National President of the Society of Fire Safety, Engineers Australia
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