The potential safety issues associated with high rise apartments were on full display in November 2014 when fire ripped up from the sixth floor to the 21st floor at the Lacrosse apartment complex at Melbourne’s Docklands.

The blaze required the services of around 80 firefighters, who took about 30 minutes to bring it under control, it and necessitated the evacuation of around 500 people.

Of course, Melbourne is far from the only city to witness large fires in high rise buildings. On New Year’s Eve, media reports say 15 people were injured as fire engulfed the a 63-storey hotel in Dubai. One person reportedly suffered a heart attack while being removed from the building.

Australia is blessed with a strong building code and excellent fire protection services, but these events demonstrate a number of areas of challenge when it comes to fire safety which result from the growing densification of our cities and the greater number of residents living in multi-storey accommodation.

First, there is the issue of materials which are used in buildings but which may not conform to the fire safety requirements of the Building Code of Australia – a particular area of concern amid the growing volumes of material being imported from places such as China.

In the case of Lacrosse, an investigation by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne found that combustible aluminium cladding which was assessed during testing by the CSIRO to be non-compliant contributed toward the rapid spread of fire up the building. In Dubai, initial on-site inspections suggested that the building’s cladding did not meet specifications, though this remains to be confirmed in the final report.

In its submission to the Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products last year, the MFB warned that any materials used in the construction of a building which do not conform to the Building Code of Australia may not behave as expected during the fire, potentially compromising the safe evacuation of premises and thus resulting in an increased likelihood of injury or death of building occupants or responding fire fighters. In situations in which the brigade was unsure whether or not conforming products had been used, meanwhile, it was possible that a less aggressive response may be needed in light of the increased risk faced by fire services personnel.

Adam Dalrymple, assistant chief fire officer and director of fire safety at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne, says the presence of non-conforming products would see crews having to adapt their fire attack plans and implement enhanced firefighting strategies upon arrival at the scene. In the example of any combustible cladding scenes similar to those at Lacrosse, this would entail addressing multiple instances of fire at multiple levels and would involve sending more firefighters and trucks as well as adapting strategies for extinguishment, evacuation and potentially, medical emergencies.

“All of our response strategies are based on historic data, evidence and tried and true methods of firefighting technique,” Dalrymple said. “What buildings like this (with non-conforming product) do, the fire reacts in a different way than you would expect. From our perspective, what we need to do is completely change our response strategy when we get there.

“Your informed strategies do not get thrown out the window. You have to alter them and do them in a really dynamic way.”

In Sydney, Fire and Rescue NSW chief superintendent Greg Buckley said the effect of non-compliant building materials on fire safety and firefighting responses varied according to the type of material concerned.

Take the example of cladding, for instance. Under normal circumstances, high-rise buildings are designed in such a way that each level is able to essentially act as a self-contained fire compartment and should be able to withstand burnout while remaining structurally stable. Accordingly, when crews arrive, the fire is usually on a single level, enabling them to set up their initial attack either one or two floors below. In such cases, crews are typically able to contain the fire to the level of origin.

Use of combustible cladding, however, can result in the fire spreading quickly on the building’s exterior and penetrating many levels. This creates a situation in which there is no effective means by which the crew are able to access upper levels and thus extinguish the fire and conduct search and rescue operations on those levels until the fire is contained on lower levels, Buckley said. Having to deal with fire on multiple floors also drains resources, which means more trucks are required – some of which obviously have to come from further away, he added.

Aside from cladding, another area of potential concern with regard to non-compliant products revolves around structural materials. Growing volumes of steel of varying quality being imported, Buckley said, are raising concerns that any structural steel which is not compliant with the BCA could potentially fail earlier than expected in the event of a fire and thus cause the building’s structure to collapse.

Though he stresses there is no cause for alarm, Buckley says events at Lacrosse underscored the potential challenges associated with high rise buildings and fire safety. He says these are especially acute in buildings of less than 25 metres in height where sprinkler systems are not required (in the case of Lacrosse, the MBF investigation referred to above indicated that sprinkler system performance which exceeded design capacity was a substantial factor in minimising the impact on a number of apartments when the fire spread from balcony to the inside of the apartment). Indeed, he would like to see the Building Code amended to mandate sprinkler systems across all multi-storey buildings.

“There is definitely a risk, and a greater risk than was previously understood,” Buckley said. “The Lacrosse fire was the obvious example and there were similar fires overseas that drew attention to the potential of the problem.”

Aside from non-conforming products, another area of concern revolves around overcrowding. In some cases, illegal operators have crammed in sometimes eight to 10 tenants, often overseas students, into one or two bedroom apartments. Media reports covering this area over recent years have documented cases of tenants being found sleeping in places such as fire escapes and bathrooms.

From a fire safety perspective, Buckley says this can lead not only to stairways becoming crowded and overwhelmed in the event of evacuation but also more belongings being stored and thus more fuel for any fire which does occur. Again, with the LaCrosse fire investigation, the MFB found high occupancy rates in some of the apartments and excessive amounts of combustible material stored on balconies. The large amount of material found on the balcony of the eighth floor fuelled the fire until it ignited the external cladding, the MFB noted.

A further area of concern relates to smoke alarm devices, where any propensity on the part of apartment occupants to disable these following false alarms could lead to delays in the existence of the fire becoming known and fire crews being called.

Finally, the evolving nature of many developments, including growing numbers of ‘mixed-use’ developments, is creating issues in terms of crews being able to easily identify the exact location of the fire on site and how to gain access to it. Whereas individual high-rise buildings which are built to code will contain a hydrant system and connection point which can usually be easily located at the front, for example, podium-style developments involving multiple towers spread across a single common basement carpark act as a single development and thus may only have a single connection booster. This can take time to find amongst the multiple buildings, Buckley says.

Dalrymple says Lacrosse has served as an important catalyst for lessons to be learned. He says where people do the right thing and buildings are constructed in accordance with code, there is no reason why buildings cannot be safe.

“It’s an unfortunate incident, the Lacrosse fire, and it has been a bit of a defining moment for us. I think there are lessons to be learned across the whole fire services sector here. It really wasn’t about response per se but it was about the legislative environment that we work in and making sure that people comply with what legislation asks them to do,” he said.

“If that takes place and people do that, I don’t think we will have any more of these sort of incidents.”