Is your building fireproof?
Are facility owners putting too much stock in compliance and leaving themselves exposed to fire disaster? ROBERT WESTERHOUT explores the actions you can consider to further protect your property.
Thousands of buildings across Australia need to comply with various fire regulations set by industry bodies in each state. However, many building owners are only looking at the compliance side. A compliant building does not necessarily mean a safe building. In fact, many buildings that do comply are by no means safe. For example, a building built in 1975 that is over 25 metres in height does not require a fire sprinkler system. This height generally only requires two fire-isolated stairwells for occupants to exit the building. If a fire breaks out on the bottom level, occupants located on the top level will struggle to exit via the stairs as the fire spreads.
Making safety a priority
There are increased expectations around reducing the loss of life from building fires as a direct result of catastrophes such as The Quakers Hill Nursing Home in Sydney and London’s Grenfell Tower disaster. Many lives were unnecessarily lost in both fires. The industry has a moral obligation to ensure it keeps up with expectations and develops its consultants and products to mitigate fire disasters.
Fire compliance assessments review the fire safety measures of a building to ensure they are installed and operating in line with design requirements and intended operation. In most cases, building codes are not retrospective. A fire maintenance contractor will only test to the standard that was in place at the time the building was built. Fire maintenance technicians also only test the functionality of the fire systems installed – they are not suitably qualified to assess whether or not the existing system is adequate to prevent loss of life and property damage if a fire occurs.
There are several key areas a qualified technician should scrutinise during routine testing, including fire detection and warning systems, fire sprinkler systems, fire separation (passive fire), emergency egress and exits, firefighting equipment – extinguishers, hydrants and hose reels – and the emergency evacuation plan. Technicians should also consider the needs of vulnerable people such as the elderly, children and people with disabilities.
Fire safety assessments
There are three main types of fire safety assessments that help fireproof a building. These include Defect Liability Period Assessment (DLPA), due diligence and commissioning reports. A DLPA reviews compliance, identifies significant departures as well recommendations and strategies. The DLPA checks characteristics of the building and compliance with the Building Code of Australia (BCA) relating to fire safety provisions.
Due diligence reports document the condition and compliance of a property’s fire safety provisions. It is a conditional inspection, test and delivery of a report that includes photographs of a building’s fire assets or property. The report can be utilised pre-purchase, pre-sale or before renovation work is undertaken.
Commissioning reports provide and assess new installations to ensure the systems installed are operating in line with the design requirements of its intended operation. These report assessments have the same scope as the DLPA but are undertaken prior to occupancy.
Regularity of assessment matters
It is a recommendation across the industry that building managers complete an assessment every five years or when major changes have been made to fire safety legislation in their state. Any building that requires a direct connection to the fire brigade via alarm signaling equipment should be assessed every five to ten years. Buildings that have multiple tenancy fitouts or large accommodation properties such as hotels or hostels should have assessments more frequently.
Utilising technological advances
The fire safety industry is constantly evolving with advances in technology improving performance and maintenance to reduce fire hazards. There are several innovative products currently in the development phase that aim to reduce the risk of a fire or can extinguish a fire automatically. Examples currently being trialled include:
- Clean agent gaseous suppression systems
- Mass notification emergency warning systems
- More intelligent fire detection systems that can differentiate smoke from other vapours such as deodorants
- Electronically monitored fire sprinkler heads, and
- Emergency escape lighting that interacts with the fire detection system.
Five tips are shared below to improve fire safety strategies:
- Verify the fire maintenance contractor is covered under the Fire Protection Accreditation Scheme
- Ensure fire maintenance contractors are providing details about defects in accordance with fire standards
- Ensure a third party reviews the fire safety measures annually or they are reviewed internally by suitably qualified people
- Provide occupants with annual fire evacuation training, completed by a registered training organisation, and
- Adopt a safety-first approach rather than a compliance approach.
Fire protection and prevention should be the number one priority for every building owner/manager. By adopting a safety-first approach more lives will be saved. Technology is continually evolving in the fire safety space and will aid further improvements in building efficiencies. Third party compliant fire assessors offer independent informed advice to ensure the building is as safe as possible.
Robert Westerhout is the compliance manager – fire at Grosvenor Engineering Group.