Phones are ringing off the hook at the peak fire protection associations as governments and building owners scramble to mitigate the threat of fire risk in multi-storey buildings.
Fire Protection Association of Australia chief executive Scott Williams says the major problem is people, not materials.
“We don’t believe we have a product issue; we have a people issue,” he told The Fifth Estate.
The root cause of risks being identified by building audits – including non-compliant use of flammable cladding, faulty sprinkler systems, unsealed services penetrations through fire resistant structures, rangehoods too close to ignition sources – comes down to a failure to meet the relevant codes and standards.
“It doesn’t matter if we have a copious amount of codes … standards and regulations. It doesn’t make it safe if people involved in that process [of construction and maintenance] do not make quality decisions,” Mr Williams said.
Even if there were a register for the “hundreds and thousands” of building products, if the people using them didn’t make the right decisions, building safety could be compromised, he said.
Reasons the level of non-compliance is so high include lack of education, “unscrupulous and irresponsible” behaviour by some, and a lack of enforcement and proper checking of work.
A systematic failure of accountability processes
Mr Williams said the Victorian Building Authority’s finding that 51 per cent of recent multi-storey buildings had non-compliant flammable cladding installation pointed to a “systemic failing of the process of accountability”, and of regulators not ensuring codes, standards and other regulations have been met.
It’s a perspective echoed by Stuart Ellis, chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) in a recent opinion piece.
“Fire authorities also have an expectation that new buildings are constructed in accordance with the National Construction Code and developers, architects, builders, building surveyors, fire engineers and others involved all check and certify that construction meets the required standards,” he said.
“This will not only ensure the safety of building occupants, but also the safety of firefighters who may be required to enter burning buildings and search for occupants during a fire incident.”
Mr Ellis said it was a “vexed issue” who was responsible for a building failing to meet the code, though there must be culpability established.
“For fire commissioners and chief fire officers, there is no doubt after a major incident who is responsible. A number of fire chiefs have not survived major inquiries or commissions into significant fire events.
“When is the same accountability going to be placed on developers, architects, builders, building surveyors, fire engineers and others involved?”
Red tape exists for a reason
Mr Williams said a push to cut red tape should not be at the cost of meeting standards.
“Red tape exists for a reason.”
There is also a need to ensure ongoing professional development and proper professional accreditation for those engaged in the fire safety sector.
He compared it to medicine, law and accountancy, where it is a requirement for all practitioners to be registered and accredited by a specific professional body. That carries with it a solid set of obligations regarding how they practice.
“In building and construction, we can’t even get our language right.”
The requirements change state by state, and have different levels of stringency.
“The whole thing is fragmented.”
We need to focus on maintenance
There is also a real need to focus on maintenance.
“We spend a lot of time and effort building a building, then when it gets to the point of occupancy the focus shifts. For the new owner or [building] manager, it becomes a grudge spend [to pay for the servicing of fire systems].”
What’s more, he said, no one checks that servicing is being carried out – not the council, not the fire services, not the workplace health and safety agencies.
The way occupants themselves regard the safety of the building is largely “predicated on trust”.
They trust the right systems were installed, and that those systems will function if there is a fire event. It’s a “complacency” mindset in terms of the built environment.
That means people are accepting a level of risk that may be higher than they think.
Fire protection ultimately comes down the safety of people’s lives first, then the protection of property, then the protection of the environment, Mr Williams said.
General manager of the Australian Building Codes Board Neil Savery agreed that in many buildings potentially at risk from fire, maintenance of systems was crucial.
“People are still at risk if the landlords or body corporate are not maintaining the buildings properly, he said.
“Compare it to a car or an aeroplane – do we want to be in any of these if we can’t be sure the brakes are working and the engines have been maintained.”
He said occupants of buildings generally expect building systems – including electrical, fire protection and plumbing – to “simply function”, as they are hidden behind the walls and under the floor. They are invisible.
“Buildings are complex systems; they need to have their regular checkups.”
Purge of dodgy players needed
As well as more stringency around the training requirements for those working on fire protection systems, there needs to be more accountability in terms of those signing off on non-compliant work, Mr Williams said.
There needs to be a “purge” of the industry, and also a way of recognising those that are doing the right thing and “achieving the public safety outcomes we want”.
“75 per cent of the building code is written around fire,” he said.
“Public safety is the main focus of the code – let’s not leave it to chance. Let’s not just hope it’s right and think, ‘She’ll be right mate’.
“Fortunately fire events do not happen often. But when they do you want to trust that those fire safety systems perform as they should, and it is not left to chance.”
Teamwork is key
Russell Porteous, chief executive of fire safety and maintenance consultancy Firewize, said one of the main requirements for safety in class 2-9 buildings was having a team of professionals working together to achieve the safety objectives of the NCC and Australian Standards.
Conversely, he’s seen people working against each other for commercial gain or benefit.
Another aspect required for improving fire safety is mandatory professional development for practitioners, including everyone from sprinkler installers to certifiers.
“The first step to fixing the problem is recognising that we have a problem,” Mr Porteous said.
“Only then can we start working together to fix the problem.”
While some elements of the building and construction industry are covered by tertiary education, there are large gaps that need to be bridged for specific industry competency, he said.
“To this end, further development is required to ensure that people who are designing, constructing, commissioning and maintaining buildings are competent, experienced and receive ongoing professional development.”
Why we need a radical overhaul
Mr Porteous said another element contributing to safe outcomes was the use of checklists.
In Victoria, for example, there are mandatory inspections required at various stages. But of the many tens of thousands of inspections his company does annually, faults are still found in buildings that have received an occupancy permit from the relevant building surveyor.
He said he watched an episode of “Aircraft Investigation” that radically changed his views about the importance of inspections.
“In the episode, a pilot failed to complete one single task in his pre-flight checklist. This led to the unfortunate deaths of over 180 people.”
A checklist mentality could help
Mr Porteous said the book The Checklist Manifesto provided an example of why a checklist approach could be useful.
In the book, author Atul Gawande took findings from the construction and aviation industries and applied them to the medical industry. Within three months, he observed a 36 per cent drop in major complications and a 47 per cent drop in patient death after surgery.
The fire protection industry in Australia has been lobbying for mandatory checklists modelled on the US standard NFPA3, Mr Porteous said.
“We need something like that in Australia.
“[This is] something bodies such as NASA and the civil aviation authorities already take seriously.”
As an example of where a checklist approach could be helpful in fire safety, Mr Porteous said his team were called in to check on a class 3 building in the Melbourne CBD for issues within the two-year post-commissioning warranty period.
“The owners corporation commissioned us to inspect the fire-resisting structures.
“The first cupboard we opened – a communications riser – we found the horizontal penetrations of the fire resistant structure hadn’t been sealed.”
Overall, between 300 to 400 similar penetrations were found.
Mr Porteous said that a “checklist mentality” could have prevented this.
By applying principles such as NASA’s pre-flight checklists to our buildings, we could ensure better “consistency and quality of outcomes”.
“That is one way we would make a great difference to quality and safety.
“In the work we do, we strive for consistency. The enemy of consistency is inconsistency.”
All it takes is one person taking their finger off the page – and then not quite remembering where they were at – for failure to be a risk.
As Mr Elllis wrote, “The more we can focus on engineering out the risk of high-rise fires, the less fire services will need to respond in emergencies.
“That is in everyone’s interest, but everyone needs to be fulfilling their responsibilities. Relying on fire services to put out the fire is too late, and for high-rise fires where compliance has not been met, as we have seen, very challenging.”