Around Australia, the influx of foreign capital in over recent years has seen a scramble on the part of developers to get new apartment stock to market.
Less attention has been afforded to issues of fire safety – although this has been talked about more actively following the 2014 Lacrosse debacle and especially the recent 2017 Grenfell Tragedy.
In light of this, questions must be asked about whether fire safety has taken a back seat in the the ‘gold rush’ of money flooding in to multi-residential building. Further questions must also be asked about the adequacy of Australia’s current regulatory regime for fire safety.
According to Wayne Smith, chief executive officer of the National Fire Industry Association, Australia’s approach toward fire safety in apartments is falling down in three areas.
First, fire safety is not being afforded its due prominence as tight margins create inevitable tension between profitability growth for developers and buildings and adequate fire protection provision. Unlike visual apartment aspects such as kitchen and furniture design, fire protection measures are not a saleable item and are thus ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ from the viewpoint of the consumer.
Beyond that, Smith says there is a lack of consistent regulation across Australia along with a lack of compliance and auditing. This is true not only during construction but also in terms of servicing and maintenance throughout the building’s lifespan.
As an example, whereas Queensland and Victoria have prescribed qualifications for those who undertake post-construction inspection and testing of fire safety features prior to construction, Smith says other states do not. This means that outside of the aforementioned states, there are no guarantees that those performing the checks possess the necessary qualifications and experience to do so. Across all states, he said, the auditing of these qualifications could improve.
Furthermore, he says a combination of lax rules in some states along with an inconsistency of regulation across states opens the way for practices and regulations to be watered down by vested interests (such as developers wishing to save money through less onerous requirements).
Smith is not alone in suggesting that problems are occurring. Speaking particularly of the situation in his home state of Victoria, leading fire safety engineer Tony Enright talks of a number of problems. These include fundamental issues in the education of fire safety engineers, the high number of registered fire safety engineers who are not qualified engineers, a lack of restriction on who can undertake fire safety engineering work, a lack of independence from private building surveyors, a lack of auditing and enforcement, a lack of monitoring during contrition, and inadequate checks about effective fire separation during residential subdivisions.
In its submission to the Senate Inquiry into non-conforming products, Engineers Australia noted a lack of specific training for fire safety engineers in Australia that would have international recognition. Australia, Engineers Australia went on to say, does not have an undergraduate engineering program in fire safety engineering and does not have a post-graduate program in this area which would be accepted internationally. The career path for fire safety engineers in Australia, EA said, is far less clear compared with that of other nations.
Going forward, Smith would like to see national regulation led by a National Fire Safety Commission which would regulate products able to be used in fire safety as well as the regulations of qualifications and people who were able to undertake fire protection work.
As well as providing greater protection against the watering down of regulation across jurisdictions, Smith says having a national regulator dealing with products as well as people would facilitate greater interaction between product suppliers and critical industry players such as designers, project managers and contractors. In turn, he says, this would help to prevent non-compliant products being used on projects by facilitating a greater understanding of on-site requirements and which products were suitable for which applications on site.
Such a body would also assist in the challenge of putting forward best practices in compliance and auditing at a federal level along with ensuring the resources and funding needed to implement these are in place, he said. As things are, even if we go out and fervently advocate for better enforcement and auditing, the fragmented nature of regulation across different states makes this task more difficult, he said.
More training will also help, he says. As an example, he points to a partnership between NFIA and global fire safety product manufacturer Victaulic delivered via NFIA’s colleagues of education system through which contractors are trained in technical knowledge and correct product installation strategies.
Smith says the system as it stands is broken and requires overhaul.
“We cannot incrementally address this problem,” Smith said. “The current situation is broken. We need to step outside this problem and look at it with fresh eyes and new blood. I think the National Fire Safety Commission is exactly that.”