A large number of apartment buildings in Victoria are being constructed with serious defects in passive fire protection, new research has found.

Led by Deakin University lecturer Dr Nicole Johnson, the research aimed to identify the types and prevalence of passive fire protection (PFP) defects in Victorian residential buildings.

Overall, it found that serious PFP defects are likely to be present in a large number of buildings – albeit with the exact prevalence of such defects being difficult to quantify. Many of these defects relate to fire walls and penetration.

Several sources indicate that the scale of the problem could be significant.

Over the three-year period between July 2018 and June 2021, audits undertaken by the Victorian Building Authority identified 134 apartment buildings (Class 2 buildings under the National Construction Code) that were under construction and were at risk for non-compliance in terms of passive fire safety.

Of these, 30 percent of the concerns related to fire resistance and stability. Other problematic areas included compartmentation and separation, protection of openings and provision of escape.

Meanwhile, data provided from a (de-identified) passive fire auditing services company paints a more concerning picture.

Across twelve sample multi-storey buildings (between three and twelve stories in height), a whopping 3,306 passive fire defects were identified during inspections across multiple stages of construction.

This equates to an average of 275 defects per building.

Practitioners interviewed for the research describe a more dire picture still – some describing the system as ‘broken’.

“I would say that every single building in the country has passive fire issues,” one fire safety engineer said.

(examples of passive fire protection defects uncovered by deidentified passive fire services audit inspection company. Image provided for aforementioned report)

The latest report comes amid ongoing concern about potential defects in passive fire protection within apartment complexes around Australia.

Passive fire protection systems are components or systems within a building’s construction that aim to slow or impede the spread of fire or smoke and to facilitate the safe egress of occupants during a fire.

Examples include fire isolated stairways, fire-rated walls and separating floors, self-closing fire or smoke doors, door smoke seals and appropriate exit widths.

These systems are passive in that they operate without needing to be activated during a fire.

They are different from active fire systems such as alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers that are activated and come into play during or after combustion.

According to the report, there are encouraging signs as some large building companies are implementing programs to prevent defects in passive fire protection.

These builders establish installation and verification protocols during early planning to ensure compliance during construction.

Nevertheless, the report highlights several factors which contribute to the prevalence of PFP defects.

These include that:

  • For a range of reasons, there are limits on testing and verification for passive fire protection products (refer p4 of report).
  • Mandatory inspections for passive fire protection systems are limited and building surveyors do not necessarily have the requisite skills to identify all passive fire non-compliance.
  • Building documentation and information transfer from developers to owners corporations is often poorly undertaken. This leads to complications with essential safety measures (ESM) maintenance and rectification works.
  • Builders, developers and service contractors are engaging unregulated passive fire practitioners to identify PFP defects, monitor defect rectification and install PFP elements and systems. This is because there is no legal requirement for fire safety practitioners, installers or trades involved in installation or maintenance of passive fire protection systems and elements to be registered in Victoria (only one Australian state – Queensland – has such a requirement).
  • Owners corporations appear reluctant to rectify costlier PFP defects until ordered by a local government authority. A fire in a building with a number of PFP defects carries a high risk (of death or injury) but the probability of a fire seems low so rectification is not prioritised.
  • Unregulated ESM (essential safety maintenance) contractors may not have the expertise to identify passive fire protection defects. They also may contract out the inspection of PFP systems and elements – leaving owners corporations exposed.

Going forward, the report made eight recommendations.

These include:

  • Further efforts to better understand the prevalence of passive fire protection defects in residential buildings across Australia and to identify those builders who are undertaking quality assurance in this area to serve as an example to others.
  • Issuing a practice direction to clear up confusion around structural reliability performance requirements of the National Construction Code (section B of Volume One of the Code) in terms of passive fire protection systems such as fire walls.
  • Research to evaluate laws in Australia and overseas that regulate building work relating to passive fire protection in order to inform future reform efforts.
  • Reform of licensing and registration laws to ensure that builders either have the requisite knowledge and capability to work on Class 2 buildings in each of the construction types (A, B or C) or to restrict registration categories based on construction type as well as building class.
  • A new registration category for passive fire practitioners.
  • Working with fire protection industry representative groups to devise a bespoke training program for passive fire protection.
  • Consideration of mandatory requirements for developers to hand over prescribed documents prior to occupancy certificates being issued.
  • Consideration regarding the feasibility of a national database of conforming and non-conforming building products.

The report aims to build on previous research and to provide further insight on the causes and contributing factors regarding passive fire protection defects along with opportunities to improve practices and safety.

It was supported by the Victorian Building Authority in association with Deakin University, Plus Systems and Focus Fire Safety.


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