Clearer information will be provided to owners and owners corporations whilst regulation of fire safety practitioners will be improved, fire safety schedules will be changed and regulatory/ compliance action will become more effective under proposed changes in a new report which are designed to improve fire safety in apartment buildings throughout New South Wales.
Released by NSW Government last month, the report’s proposals are the result of nine months’ work by a group which includes representatives from sixteen organisations.
These organisations span across fire protection, building certification, building management, engineers, academics, local councils and regulators.
In a briefing provided to Sourceable, Matt Press, Director, Office of the Building Commissioner, said the review aimed to identify actions which could be implemented quickly.
It came after fire safety was identified as a common source of defects within buildings (after waterproofing) during early Office of the Building Commissioner audits.
It is part of work being undertaken by the Office to provide a timely response to defects which present safety concerns.
“The genesis of this was saying, “let’s go through the most serious defects one by one and have a response to each of them.” Press said
“We had already progressed a lot of work on the most common – waterproofing – so fire was next on the list.
“We also wanted to make sure that this wasn’t another reform project, it was critical that we established a group that were focussed and energised to deliver results in a six-to-nine-month period.”
Four priority areas were identified.
1.Better Information for Owners and Owners Corporations
First, the report recommended changes to ensure that owners are provided with clear and consistent information about how to operate their building.
This includes owners corporations, strata managers and building managers.
Toward this end, the working group designed a template manual which can be used for fire safety systems. This consists of a simplified section for owners along with a technical section for practitioners.
To help drive consistency in how testing, inspection and servicing is performed, the template manual has applied the Australian Standard AS 1851: 2012 ‘Routine service of fire protection systems and equipment’.
This is important, Press says, to ensure that the regular inspections required for many detection and response systems within strata buildings are being performed according to a consistent standard. Where this does not happen, inspections are performed according to each practitioner’s own view on what is sufficient. This can lead to a race to the bottom, with diligent operators being undercut by cheaper rivals.
In addition, applying the standard will help to ensure not only that required fire safety systems are in place but also that they have been demonstrated through testing to perform to the required standards.
As for concerns that application of the standard may lead to greater costs for servicing and inspection, Press says a member survey undertaken by the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPAA) indicated that the standard is already widely applied by around 60 percent of contractors servicing strata buildings.
Applying the standard in the template manual will therefore simply bring all players up to standards which are already applied by mature and responsible practitioners.
2. Ensuring Effective Regulation of Fire Safety Practitioners
Next, the working group identified measures to ensure that fire safety practitioners are effectively regulated.
First, it undertook detailed work to produce schedules which outline the role and responsibilities of each type of fire practitioner across various stages of building (pre-design, design, installation, commissioning and certification) along with the legislation under which each role operates. This information is now being translated into education material so that both practitioners and consumers can ensure that each function is performed by suitable personnel.
This was a complicated exercise. As things stand, some practitioners are required to be formerly licensed, others are accredited via an industry accreditation scheme whilst yet others do not need either licensing or accreditation. (The working group formed the view that licensing or accreditation should be required for all fire safety practitioners.)
In addition, the group recommended creation of two new types of practitioner.
The first would assess and verify whether or features which are specified in the fire safety certificate that is provided by developers have been installed and are capable of performing to the required standard. This would be done prior to issuing of an occupation certificate.
As things stand, Press says current regulations require such features to be installed by a suitably qualified person. The building certifier will verify that they are present in the location specified in the approval.
However, the new practitioner would go beyond this and would ensure that systems which are in place have been demonstrated through testing to perform to the required standard.
The other type of practitioner to be formed over the longer term would act as a single point of responsibility for the entire fire safety system.
As things stand, Press says practitioners involved in fire safety design and engineering tend to work in siloes and to focus narrowly on their particular task. By contrast, the new practitioner would ensure that the entire system worked together to deliver the overall intended outcome. This will include both active and passive fire protection systems.
This, he says, is important. As buildings are comprised of many different elements that need to be integrated in order for everything to work in harmony, it is important to move beyond simply thinking about how each person takes responsibility for their own parts and to bring together different skills to produce new practitioners who can take responsibility for entire systems.
Qualifications in respect of such a specialisation will take time to develop. Nevertheless, the working group believes that discussions should commence within regulators, universities, designers and engineers about how this can be progressed.
3. Fire Safety Schedules
Next, the working group made three recommendations regarding fire safety schedules (FSSs).
These are prepared on behalf of the owner/developer at the occupation certificate stage of building work. They list proposed or existing fire safety features, outline the required standard of performance of such features and identify important fire safety measures.
First, the group developed a schedule template – which it recommends be incorporated into regulations. This is important as the absence of such a template has had led to inconsistency regarding information which is presented and how it is presented.
To extend application of this template to existing buildings, meanwhile, the group developed a process that would require its use upon certain trigger events. These include buildings requiring approval for additions and alternations, being subject to fire safety orders or needing approval for a material change of use.
Finally, the working group developed a process through which the schedule is subject to review and correction of shortcomings, omissions or mistakes. Such errors are often discovered where new contractors are appointed for maintenance or inspections.
As things stand, Press says NSW legislation does not provide an effective process for such minor corrections to occur. This can lead to issues being glossed over. As schedules form the basis for future annual fire safety inspections, he says these small but important changes will help to place a greater value upon their accuracy.
4. Better Regulation and Compliance
Fire safety regulation is complex, with roles for both the state and local governments and a number of regulatory authorities. As such, the working group has recommended actions for the regulators and industry to work better to improve compliance and enforcement.
Smaller local councils, for example, could access greater technical resources and benefit from knowledge sharing with larger councils through means such as ‘spoke and hub’ models or regional council networks. Councils could be further aided through information knowledge exchange with the Office of the Building Commissioner as it progresses its audits.
Meanwhile, the group worked with Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) to develop proposals for consideration which could facilitate it taking a more proactive approach which allows for early engagement in design, improve the referral process and accompanying requirements, and increase the accountability of certifiers in regard to actions undertaken upon receipt of a final fire safety report or a fire safety system report.
Fast Action in 2022
As mentioned above, the review aimed to identify actions which can be speedily implemented.
Formal consultation is expected to occur in the first quarter of 2022. This process will be aided as much consultation has already occurred and the report has provided clear recommendations along with the rationale behind them.
Press says the report aims to deliver meaningful and timely outcomes.
“It’s not having a traditional review where you produce a paper that in three years’ time results in some kind of response,” he said.
“The whole purpose of this work was to investigate and analysis problems and put together solutions which are not far away from implementation.”