When one Sydney apartment complex owners decided to upgrade the safety of their building, after the request from the local council for an annual fire management statement, the results were disappointing.
The problem was that above the fire panel located in the entry foyer, they say four conduits were entering a two-way junction box. However, this was not the only problem. The distance between the balustrade in the stairs and the fire panel in the entry foyer was less than one metre as required by the National Construction Code (NCC).
What the issue in this building shows is how dangerous it can be when anyone can work on fire protection systems without the need to show that they possess the knowledge and skills to do so. In most parts of Australia, you have to fulfil specific requirements to be able to create plans for new or existing fire safety system inside buildings and work on developing fire protection performance solutions according to NCC regulations. In order to be able to do fire safety in New South Wales, you have to be a “competent fire safety practitioner”.
The routine fire safety tasks are a different story. These tasks involve creating place occupancy separations which don’t let fire spread from one building compartment to another and the installation of fire protection equipment. Queensland, for example, heavily regulated this part of the industry. All individuals that work on installing or maintaining parts of a fire protection system need to have a proper license. This approach gave good results because only three practitioners were prosecuted for working on fire protection without a permit since 2013.
The situation is different from state to state. For example, if you want to install an automatic sprinkler system in Victoria, you need to have a proper license. However, NSW doesn’t have trade licensing classes for fire protection.
The CEO of the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPA Australia), Scott Williams, finds worrying that there is no need for minimum competency required when working on safety protection systems. The answer of the industry to this problem was the development of an accreditation scheme, which is voluntary, not required.
Williams stated that the FPA asks for the minimum competency requirements to be established within the industry so that all the work is done safely, consistently and according to existing regulations. He also stated that the overall quality of work could significantly vary in the industry where there is no minimum competency or registration of practitioners. Furthermore, Williams said that the FPA Australia advocates for defining minimum skills for all individuals and businesses that operate in the fire protection industry.
Roscon’s national general manager of property reporting and facility management, Sahil Bhasin, stated that there are problems with professional in a few different areas. One of the problems Bhasin mentioned is when a wrong type of fire extinguishers is installed. The fire extinguishers are not all the same since the contents can be different, depending on what kind of fires are they made for. They can contain water, powder, foam, carbon dioxide, wet chemicals or vaporising liquid. An example he shared is when a water extinguisher is installed in place of a foam or powder one.
When something like this happens, consequences can be quite severe. For example, fighting a fire that involves lots of oils in a fish and chip shop with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher would be quite ineffective. On the other hand, a wet chemical extinguisher would be much better, since it is developed for fires that involve oils and fat. However, that same extinguisher would be useless when fighting a fire in a switchboard room.
Another serious problem that Bhasin mentioned is when penetrations are not sealed properly. He stated that the strategies for fighting against fires always aim to contain the fire in the same compartment in which it has started. Safety features like fire doors at lift entrances, carpark made of concrete and sealing of penetrations will stop the fire that began in the basement from spreading to the level above.
Fire doors are also supposed to contain the fire in the apartment where it started. The penetrations that were not appropriately sealed will defeat the purpose of these doors and help the fire spread further.
Bhasin believes that it is crucial that professionals who work in the fire protection industry have necessary skills, workmanship and knowledge. Many different Australian standards (like AS1851, AS1940, and AS2845) require that testing is carried out periodically for fire pumps, fire sprinklers, fire detection, fire hydrants, fire blankets, portable fire extinguishers, special hazard systems, alarm systems, emergency lighting and foam concentration. However, specific issues, for example, with sealing of penetration can’t be identified unless there is a real fire. This means that the essential functions of the sealing rests solely on the quality of work done during the construction or renovation of the building.
Bhasin would like to see changes in two areas.
- Every individual who wants to work in the fire protection industry must be required to get specialized training and certification. According to Bhasin, the problem is that the bar is set too low and anyone can perform fire protection. At this moment, the only exception is that the person who installs sprinkler system must have a licence (because it falls under plumbing legislation) and also licensed electricians must test and replace EXIT lights.
- He would also like that the building owners are required to create an annual essential safety measures report (ESM report). At the moment, lack of resources is what slows down the enforcement about this report, and Bhasin stated that only a few building owners produce the report.
If there were more resources, it would be possible to check the reports and change the minds of building owners.
Williams believes that the important changes would be to make training more available to professionals and to establish minimum competency requirements in accordance to national consistency in regulations. Currently, he finds that there is a lack of enforcement and regulatory compliance in the whole industry. He says that those who are not suitable to work in the industry are a minority, while most of the professionals do good work.
He stated that instead of making sure there is a system to monitor the performance of professionals in the industry, we still rely on trusting that the professional will do the right thing. He believes that requiring all practitioners to register will lead to safer buildings.