On September 6, 2012, Chinese parents Julie and Vincent Zhu experienced what no parents should ever have to go though.
On that day, they were forced to watch as their only child - 21-year-old Connie - leapt to her death from the ledge of the fifth storey of a Bankstown apartment block after fire engulfed the building. Friend Ginger Jiang, who also jumped, sustained serious injuries.
That shock turned into outrage three years later after Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon found that her death would likely have been prevented were it not for penny pinching from the developer and incompetence at every level.
Chief amongst the issues, Dillon found, was a failure on the part of developer Ray Finianos to install sprinklers. Whilst the building was 10 centimetres under the 25-metre effective height at which sprinklers were required, the presence of an internal atrium within the block meant that they should have been installed, Dillion said.
Worse, repeated orders from both the council and the fire department to rectify issues such as poor water pressure in the fire hydrants and a lack of signage had been ignored over several years. Finianos had been ‘insouciant’ and strata manager Peter Poulos had been ‘incompetent’ whilst the compliance section at the council had been under resourced and there had been systematic failures in the process of fire checks and building certification, Dillon found. Had sprinklers have been installed as they should have been, he found that Zhu would probably be alive.
Along with the Lacrosse debacle, incidents such as this prompt questions about whether or not Australians can be confident that apartments and other buildings in which they live, work and play are safe from a fire perspective. For a number of reasons, many within the fire protection industry say this is not the case.
Start with compliance. Matthew Wright, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Fire Protection Association of Australia, said that whilst many regulations are themselves sound, his association frequently hears about requirements of the Code not being met in practice. This includes service technicians even in new buildings finding that critical equipment is missing or that a failure on the part of owners to perform maintenance has led to matters such as there being no fuel in the tank left for fire pumps. And of course, there are always concerns about non-compliant building products.
Then, there is education, where Wright says a lack of national skill requirements meant that there could well be people operating within the fire protection industry who did not understand basic issues relating to the Building Code or Australian standards. On this point, he says the FPAA has developed its own accreditation scheme and was lobbying governments to recognise this across the country.
Third, there is lax enforcement. In many instances, Wright says, auditing performed by council or regulatory bodies deals primarily with housing or administrative tasks and fails to address critical fire safety issues. Rather, he said, regulators should visit newly commissioned buildings and verify that everything is where it should be. From these checks, he said better efforts to educate owners about problems are needed.
A further problem revolves around inconsistent arrangements surrounding the administration of fire protection elements of buildings. Whilst the NCC and standards it references are national documents, Wright says these are called up within individual state and territory legislation and regulations, which he says have different rules about who is able to perform work, the person to whom applications have to be referred, the time period in which to consider applications and how they are signed off.
Finally, Wright talks about issues with the National Construction Code itself. Where apartment buildings are less than the 25-metre effective height threshold below which automatic sprinkler systems are not required, Wright says they rely heavily on passive fire protection (such as fire protected plasterboard) to resist the spread of fire throughout the building. Whilst allowable, he says this can be dangerous in cases where, for example, such protection is incorrectly installed.
This is particularly problematic in light of the fact that flashover – the point at which combustible materials within a room ignite – has been shown by studies of modern apartments in the US to be as low as three to four minutes thanks to the growing prevalence of plastics and chemicals. In the natural fibre-prevalent era of decades gone by, this would have been perhaps 11 minutes. Given that average metropolitan fire response times sit at around seven minutes, this means there is more reliance than ever upon the building’s fire protection systems to stop the spread of fire.
As well as placing excessive reliance on passive systems, Wright says a lack of automated sprinklers can result in exactly what happened with the victims in Sydney, where fire blocked their path and they became trapped.
Wright stresses that the Australian Building Codes Board is looking at this area and that he has confidence in the Board to address these issues. Until the issues are resolved, however, he says serious danger remains.
Wright’s comments come amid increasing frustration within fire protection industry about a growing incidence of poor practices, which range from inadequate fire separation between floors and apartments to non-compliant materials or simply bad installations of things such as fire-rated plasterboard.
Fire protection is often seen as a ‘grudge spend’ which is necessary but adds little to occupant comfort or amenity or developer profits. Where owner finances are tight, Owners Corporations, too, can be reluctant to spend money in this area.
As mentioned above, enforcement efforts are also problematic. Cases reported to authorities are sometimes not actioned for years.
What is needed, Wright says, is better compliance, education and enforcement along with greater consistency in regulation and administration and a tightening of the Code.
He says the fire protection industry is not granted the respect it deserves and that Australia overall is doing poorly in protecting building occupant safety.
“It depends on how we measure whether or not we are doing well,” Wright said, asked about whether Australia was doing well or poorly in terms of fire protection.
“If we measure it based on the cost of construction and how much productivity we’ve got with our buildings being constructed, then we are doing great. You can go the Victoria Building Authority and they will give you some figures and a lovely graph which shows how building approvals per year continue to increase.
“But I would say in response to that ‘yes, that’s good, but how many of them comply?’ and we don’t know. If you measured it based on risk, I don’t think we are going that well at all.”
The death of Connie Zhu should never have happened and represents a failure to build, regulate and enforce compliance properly.
Australia cannot and must not let this happen again.