Is the combustible cladding crisis behind us, or at least under control? Or are there other major fire risks and latent fire hazards waiting to hit the building and construction sector in Australia in the near future?
A whole range of professional development initiatives and new regulatory controls around Australia in the area of fire safety are expected to have us moving forward to a more secure future for fire safety and provide greater confidence in property investments within Australia.
This article looks at some of the major fire safety issues identified through the “Building Confidence Report” (BCR) and the Warren Centre research “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”. These issues have led to past failures but are now being addressed through the actions of both accreditation bodies for fire safety practitioners, such as Engineers Australia, and through changes to national policies and state and territory building regulations.
Warren Centre Research
The Warren Centre research now concluded at the University of Sydney has involved more than 50 building design firms, industry organizations and key individuals in compiling its eight evidence-based reports into the practices and controls on professional fire safety engineers.
The reports corroborated many of the findings of the Shergold/Weir BCR and earlier inquiry reports into the building and construction industry. In relation to fire safety, many of the issues which emerged were:
- There was total inconsistency between states and territories on regulatory controls over building fire safety design and fire systems design practice
- Some states have licensed or registered fire safety engineers, but others have not.
- Most jurisdictions have exercised little if any audit and enforcement control over fire safety practitioners
- Only one state had a mandated regulatory requirement to conduct site inspections by fire safety engineers to ensure the fire safety strategy had been properly implemented in construction and commissioning.
- The need to consult on aspects of fire safety design with the local fire authority was patchy
- There was no need to provide building owners and managers with simple, plain English manuals on key fire safety measures, and maintenance requirements.
Of course, this lack of effective building regulatory controls and enforcement measures has not been unique to fire safety. We have seen high rates of building defects across Australia in relation to water proofing, structural design, ventilation, mould and other design and construction failures.
In the case of fire safety, there are many very good and competent practitioners in Australia. Engineers Australia has had the National Engineers Register (NER) for qualified and accredited fire safety engineers for more than 20 years. More recently, the Fire Protection Association, Australia (FPAA) has established its FPAS scheme to accredit qualified and experienced fire system designers and fire safety assessors.
However, the result of not preventing unqualified practitioners from designing and constructing buildings, allowing poorly justified Performance Solutions, and permitting the design and installation of fire systems with little if any regulatory or quality controls, has allowed poor practice to flourish in some areas.
This has led to issues such as:
- A failure to recognise and address key fire safety challenges in complex buildings
- Installation of highly combustible cladding and the resulting external cladding fires
- Very large numbers of unstopped fire protection penetrations through fire walls between apartments
- Sprinkler systems installed, but without the water supply connected.
- Buildings designed with specially designed lifts for evacuation, but the owners and tenants never told that was part of the fire safety evacuation strategy
- Smoke detectors installed inappropriately causing large number of false alarms
- Complex smoke control systems that are almost certain to fail in a fire incident because they have never been commissioned properly.
In order to address many of these issues, at least in relation to the professional practice of fire safety engineers and the need for improved outcomes in terms of better quality and safer buildings, the Warren Centre reports have made a series of strong recommendations for change. They address the future roles and competencies of fire safety engineers, as well as their education, professional development, and accreditation that all feed into a need for major regulatory reform.
The hope was that the recommendations of the BCR Shergold/Weir report and the Warren Centre research reports would coalesce into a consistent approach to regulations and control of fire safety engineering practice across Australia. That appears to be happening.
Some of the key initiatives include:
- The ABCB BCR Implementation team have a Discussion Paper out for consultation on a National Registration Framework (NRF) which includes registration of professional fire safety engineers as well as the separate but related roles for designers of fire systems such as sprinklers and fire detection systems. The qualifications and experienced required for registration for both categories of practitioners are set out clearly.
- In NSW, the Design and Building Practitioners Regulation 2020 is being developed, based on the corresponding legislation, and is due for implementation on 1 July 2021. Consistent with the NRF, fire safety engineers will be required to be registered in order to undertake fire safety design work and analysis related to ensuring buildings meet the NCC Performance Requirements. Equally, fire system designers will be required to be registered by the state regulator in order to practice in NSW.
- Similarly, in Victoria and Western Australia, there are plans and consultation papers out for comment on building regulatory controls similar to those in force in Queensland and proposed in NSW for registration of fire safety engineers and other building designers. The remaining states and territories are also likely to follow suit.
- In NSW, under the leadership of Building Commissioner David Chandler, audits of buildings prior to the issuance of Occupation Certificates will create more pressure for fire safety designers and all building practitioners to make sure they produce buildings of the required health, safety and amenity before handover and occupation.
- ABCB and the regulators are pushing to get some consistent approach to consultation of designers with fire authorities, and declarations by fire safety engineers and fire systems designers that their designs meet NCC Performance Requirements and Australian Standards respectively. Codes of conduct highlighting ethical behaviours and codes of technical practice to be adhered to by all registered practitioners are also on the table.
It appears that Australia is moving towards a reasonably consistent set of regulatory controls over design and construction practices, including for fire safety. A key element of the reforms seems to be the adoption of the co-regulatory model whereby:
- The state and territory regulations provide the “authority to practice” through making it illegal to practise fire safety engineering without registration, which is based on recognition of professional accreditation by the relevant professional bodies, such as Engineers Australia for fire safety engineers, requires minimum PI insurance, and sets the sanctions and penalties for poor or improper practice, and,
- The professional bodies such as Engineers Australia provide the “competency to practice” through maintaining the required competencies and professional assessment processes, evaluate the engineers’ qualifications, experience and competencies, monitor their Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and conducts audits of professional practice with disciplinary procedures as required.
This is totally in line with the Warren Centre recommendations for fire safety engineering. This co-regulatory model makes best use of the skills and resources of the jurisdiction regulators and the professional assessment bodies without duplication or unnecessary additional costs to industry.
In addition, the regulators are considering the Warren Centre recommendations for fire safety engineers to develop holistic fire safety strategies which address all NCC Performance Requirements, whatever the mix of Performance Solutions and DtS Solutions. They are also looking at the need for fire safety engineers to be involved in inspections, witnessing commissioning of integrated fire safety systems, and preparing suitable fire safety manuals for building owners, managers and tenants as recommended by Shergold/Weir.
Overall, there is a great deal of optimism that we will get a nationally consistent and rigorous set of regulatory controls over engineering design and construction practices in Australia, including for fire safety engineering. Practitioners will have to be accredited by professional bodies and registered by regulators to verify their competence and to be granted authority to practice. To practice without registration based on professional accreditation will be illegal.
The expectation is that the quality and safety of buildings will improve markedly, and property investors and consumers will again trust and have confidence in the built environment in which they live and work.
Note: All Warren Centre reports on regulatory controls, education and accreditation, technical methods, roles and competencies can be downloaded for free from the University of Sydney/Warren Centre website – https://www.sydney.edu.au/engineering/industry-and-community/the-warren-centre/fire-safety-engineering.html
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”.