Significant levels of failure within the building regulatory regime in Victoria are leading to major risks of fire-related deaths in high-rise apartment buildings, according to the leading fire protection service in that state.

In a recent report, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade says the fire that ripped up 15 stories of the Lacrosse apartment complex at the Docklands in Melbourne in 2014 demonstrates how levels of risk associated with fires in multi-storey buildings are increasing due to growing numbers of high-rise buildings being constructed, growing numbers of elderly residents and international students in these buildings, overcrowding and a lack of an effective regime of building control throughout Victoria.

In particular, the growing prevalence of materials used in construction which do not meet requirements under the Building Code of Australia was creating special problems.

Fires in buildings which contain such materials may behave differently than expected, the MFB said, leading to situations in which fire-fighting responses are becoming more difficult and dangerous.

“All the MFB’s practices are informed by training and experiences, these allow firefighters to determine the appropriate actions in specific environments, under specific circumstances,” the MFB said in its report. “When non-conforming building products are utilised in the construction of a building, or compliant products are utilised in a non- conforming manner, the MFB’s standard fire-fighting responses may even become counterproductive…

“These circumstances may prevent or compromise the safe evacuation of premises, resulting in an increased likelihood of the injury or death of occupants of the premise or responding firefighters. In situations where the MFB does not know whether conforming products have been used, it may be that the MFB adopts a less aggressive response which will be safer for firefighters. This, however, may increase the risk to residents caught in a building fire.”

In its report, the MFP hit out at the Victoria Building Authority (VBA) and the Building Practitioners Board (BPB) over what it says is a significant lack of regulatory enforcement.

In relation to the VBA, the MFB says despite persistent warnings from the Victorian Auditor General’s Office that many building permit applications were being approved without adequate forms of documentation, the regulator did not appear to have audited the buildings which were constructed based on the non-compliant documentation in question.

Nor was the regulator actually checking any completed buildings, leading to a situation in which buildings could be found to have adequate levels of documentation associated with them yet be poorly constructed in reality without anyone being aware this was the case.

Moreover, the MFB says enforcement efforts have been poor; despite 12 months having passed since the Lacrosse fires, no disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against anyone and none of the practitioners involved had been referred to the BPB, it said.

As for the Building Practitioners Board, information published on its disciplinary register showing that only four cases of matters relating to fire safety had resulted in anything more than a reprimand was sending a message to surveyors that ‘engaging in poor conduct in relation to fire safety matters is not serious’, the MFB said.

In its report, the MFB made 14 recommendations. These included that roles of various regulators be clarified, fire safety measures in multi-residential building be required to be inspected by registered fire engineers, rules relating to departures from fire-related performance requirements of the Building Code by tightened, sprinklers be made mandatory for class 2 and 3 buildings irrespective of building height and evidence be provided that alarm systems are connected to fire stations.

The report comes nearly a year after the dramatic incident whereby fire which started on the sixth floor of the Lacrosse apartment building ripped up to the 21st floor following what an MFB investigation subsequently found to be cladding imported from China which did not comply with regulatory standards under the Building Code of Australia.

In response, a Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products being used throughout Australia has been launched and is expected to report by March next year.

In addition, the VBA has been auditing major high-rise buildings across inner Melbourne in order to check and confirm which ones have the same type of cladding that was seen on the Lacrosse fire.