You’ll notice that there is something different about this debate – and that is we’re only presenting one voice. We believe that every so often there are occasions when it would be unhelpful, not to say unethical, to assert that there are always two sides to every question. The issue of fire safety right now is one of them.
Scott Williams discusses the current situation in Australia and the implications for architects, specifiers and other stakeholders in the construction industry and built environment.
SCOTT WILLIAMS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION AUSTRALIA
Recent media coverage of fire protection in Australia has been dominated by discussion of products that don’t conform to building codes and standards, and whether the codes and standards we do have are working. Driving that coverage have been two key events: the Lacrosse apartment fire in Melbourne in 2014, and the recent Grenfell apartment fire in London, which to date has claimed 87 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.
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 be, and quite often is being, neglected.
When asked if a fire like Grenfell could happen in Australia, our 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, Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) strongly contends that this issue is a function of a much broader underlying problem, which, if left untreated, will continue to create significant public safety risk.
We don’t have a product non-conformity issue. What we have is a significant national competency and compliance issue. We have an environment where poor decisions are being made throughout the building and construction process because of inadequate education and practitioner accreditation, coupled with an inconsistent and often inadequate approach by state and territory governments to effective fire safety building controls.
The establishment of the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) and the National Construction Code (NCC) represents the single most important advancement since Federation in delivering national construction requirements.
The micro-economic reform agenda of the Federal Government in the late 1980s ultimately delivered, via inter-governmental agreement, some of the best building codes and standards the world had seen, which provide the necessary flexibility to keep pace with new products and materials.
The foundation of any regulatory framework is contemporary technical provisions. These provisions must have clear objectives and pathways that allow proven and emerging technology to be embraced by industry to deliver cost-effective and safe outcomes.
The NCC and its referenced standards underpin the technical provisions nationally. FPA Australia contends that these codes and standards, which have incorporated performance-based provisions since 1996, remain sound and have delivered a national approach to technical requirements that have improved efficiency and represent an agreed benchmark for compliance. While it’s healthy for the codes and standards to continue responding to the latest trends, techniques and technology, we don’t consider wholesale changes are necessary to the NCC and associated standards beyond the current ABCB work plan.
No amount of codes, standards or regulation writing can compensate for a lack of minimum competency requirements and ongoing education, however. There are myriad roles in the building and construction industry, and they are often quite complex. If the individuals performing them are unclear about the extent of their responsibilities and how to interpret and apply elements of the codes and standards relevant to them, we will continue to experience a lack of compliance and therefore increased risk to public safety.
There is currently no alignment between Australian jurisdictions regarding minimum competency requirements for the fire protection industry. There is no agreement to use nationally recognised units of competency wherever possible, despite work on this by the Australian Qualifications Training Framework. There are significant gaps in available units of competency and qualifications to underpin all fire protection activities, but perhaps the most concerning and alarming factor is that there is no agreement to define what the key roles and responsibilities are of those individuals involved in fire safety and fire protection.
There are significant gaps in available units of competency and qualifications to underpin all fire protection activities, but perhaps the most concerning and alarming factor is that there is no agreement to define what the key roles and responsibilities are of those individuals involved in fire safety and fire protection.
Without the introduction of consistent national administrative provisions determining the roles and actions of different stakeholders in design, construction and post-construction, as well as minimum competency requirements for those roles, the benefits of Australia’s world-class building codes and standards will never be truly realised. Practitioners, consumers and the community will continue to experience a lack of accountability, defects, confusion and negative economic prosperity, but most importantly increased and unacceptable risk to public safety.
Compliance with current codes and standards would flag non-conforming products, allowing them to be reported and defects corrected – an approach of fixing the problem in the beginning, rather than trying to pick up the pieces at the end.
So why is it so difficult to apply a minimum level of competency in the fire protection industry at a national level? While we have a solid foundation of national codes and standards, one of the biggest challenges for industry education has been the inconsistency in interpretation of the codes and standards between states and territories. As a result, compliance looks very different depending on where you are in Australia. FPA Australia’s experience is that not only are the administrative provisions for adopting codes and standards and maintaining compliance different in every jurisdiction, enforcement is token at best and in some cases non-existent.
No jurisdiction has a coordinated regime in place to conduct meaningful enforcement of the codes and standards of professional conduct, and there is little incentive for industry to ensure compliance in a competitive marketplace driven by cost and small margins. There is no national capture of data that could be used to improve requirements and inform educational messaging.
Ultimately, Australia has sound building codes and standards, but they cannot be effective if they are not complied with. Our codes and standards are not being consistently implemented by competent people to ensure our buildings are compliant during construction and post-construction.
As it stands, it is often the unfortunate building certifier or surveyor at the end of the process that unfairly carries nearly all the burden of risk, given that they have deemed the building compliant to the codes and standards and suitable to occupy, despite not having been supported by competent individuals along the way.
This singular issue is beyond comprehension. To help navigate through this confusion, FPA Australia introduced a voluntary accreditation scheme underpinned by minimum levels of competency for fire protection practitioners. These services cater to those in the industry looking to provide the best possible fire safety outcomes, and to consumers looking for professionals who can deliver the best possible outcomes. FPA Australia provides a list of accredited practitioners on our website.
While the accreditation we offer is currently voluntary, FPA Australia has been working with governments at all levels, in particular through the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF), to nationally highlight the need for national minimum competency and compliance requirements.
We implore them to address the failing of our building and construction administrative control processes and provide leadership to restore confidence in the building industry, and improve fire protection outcomes to ensure everyone in Australia is safe.
We believe fire safety in Australia and globally should not be left to chance, and it is the shared responsibility of all stakeholders to display leadership in improving the safety of people, property and the environment, and ensuring tragedies like the Grenfell fire are not repeated.
Lead image copyright: basphoto/123RF Stock Photo.
Read about the Victorian Government’s non-compliant cladding taskforce.