Recent media coverage of fire protection in Australia has been dominated by discussion of products that don’t conform to building codes and standards.
Driving that coverage has been two key events; the Lacrosse apartment fire in Melbourne in 2014, and the recent Grenfell apartment fire in London, which claimed at least 80 lives.
The tragic event at Grenfell has resonated so strongly in Australia because of its uncomfortable similarity to the earlier blaze at Lacrosse, a fire that took the industry and the general public by surprise. While Lacrosse began a national conversation in Australia about fire safety, the awful human cost of the Grenfell fire has added a new urgency to it.
Grenfell provided a terrible vision of what can happen when codes and standards are not complied with; the full and shocking magnitude of a breakdown in regulatory control. In recent years, the UK has systematically embarked on a program of red tape reduction to stimulate economic growth, not dissimilar to Australia. This appears to have generated a climate where safety and ensuring compliance to building codes and standards has been perceived as an impediment that can and quite often is being neglected.
When asked if a fire like Grenfell could happen in Australia, the answer is a positive yes. The conditions behind the severity of the Grenfell fire are, fundamentally, the same as those behind the Lacrosse fire, which avoided similar fatalities more by good luck than anything else. Both buildings were made vulnerable to fire by products and practices that did not conform to stringent building codes and standards, in this case combustible cladding.
The conversation has understandably therefore focused on product conformity. But while product conformity is important, it’s only one part of the picture.
There are three key pillars necessary for an effective fire protection industry:
- Conforming products: products that are what they claim to be, are validated and are fit for purpose
- Conforming people: professional, educated, accredited practitioners that are fit for action
- Enforcement: empowered regulators, proactive and willing to ensure people and products come together to achieve compliant building outcomes.
These pillars are all interlinked, and without each of the three functioning well, the industry cannot reach the outcomes it aims for. The recent burst of investigations into the improper use of combustible cladding in Australia clearly illustrates this.
While conforming, fire-resistant cladding material is certainly available on the Australian market, it has been improperly substituted by non-conforming combustible cladding on potentially hundreds if not thousands of high-rise buildings across the country, according to the preliminary findings of these investigations.
If this substitution was inadvertent, the problem could have been avoided by a fire protection workforce that was required to have minimum levels of competency that ensured it understood and could apply the codes and standards that prohibit the use of combustible cladding on these buildings.
If deliberate, the problem could have been addressed by enforcement of the codes and standards by empowered regulators.
In Australia, these two latter pillars in particular are still under construction. The hard questions being asked by the ongoing investigations into non-conforming cladding use are shedding light onto the unfortunate consequences of this. High profile media coverage, particularly the recent investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners program, are also unpacking these underlying causes of the cladding problem for the general public.
Across the country, governments are increasingly recognising this structural problem and making steps to address it. An evolving requirement for fire protection accreditation in New South Wales, a new South Australian registration for inspect and test workers with specified units of competency,rapidly-growing accreditation numbers for bushfire planning and design workers in Western Australia, and strong new legislation in Queensland to assign responsibility for compliance in the construction sector.
While there is still a long road ahead of us, we believe developments like this are an acknowledgement of the necessity of those three pillars, and have the Australian fire protection industry heading in the right direction.