The State of Fire Safety Engineering in Australia

This year The Warren Centre has undertaken a major project examining Fire Safety Engineering in Australia. Below is an excerpt from report two of this series: Regulation, Control and Accreditation.


The cracking incident at the Sydney Opal Tower in December 2018 and the Neo200 fire at Spencer Street, Melbourne in February 2019 demonstrate serious failures of Fire Safety Engineering in Australia that must be addressed.

Given a disturbing similarity of the Neo 200 fire, the earlier Lacrosse Building fire, the Grenfell Tower fire in London and other similar global fires, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the whole performance-based regulatory regime is completely broken and that the sector is producing few high-quality buildings. On the other hand, the demonstration of the full design flexibility, aesthetics, functionality and safety afforded by the performance-based Building Code of Australia is displayed through buildings and structures such as Eureka Tower,  Barangaroo, 1 Bligh Street, Adelaide Cricket Ground New Stand, and the Macquarie Bank building in Sydney.

Nevertheless, clearly problems continue to emerge in relation to design, choice of materials,  façade design, poor installation, lack of proper inspections and other aspects which shake the confidence of buildings owners and occupants.

While Governments and the Building Ministers Forum struggles to find a way to respond to the façade issues and the Shergold/Weir Building Confidence recommendations, the Warren Centre for Advanced  Engineering undertook this industry-initiated effort to define the required performance of fire safety engineers (FSEs) and to lift practice to full and proper professionalisation. This project is focused on the role, regulation, competence, education and accreditation of fire safety engineers. It recognises that while fire safety engineers take the lead on developing fire safety strategies and fire safety designs of buildings, they are but one of the players in the whole design, construction and maintenance life cycle of buildings.

Findings: a lack of national consistency

There is absolutely no national consistency in the approach to regulation and controls over fire safety engineering practice in Australia (table 1). Only NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania have any form of legislative or regulatory controls in place, and those controls vary significantly from state to state in terminology, processes and procedures.

 

Only Queensland and Tasmania have licence provisions for fire safety engineers, which means other persons who are not licensed may not undertake fire safety engineering and can be subject to penalties. Only NSW has any legislative requirement to undertake any mandatory construction site inspections and provide a report to the certifier.

Only in three states, namely Victoria, Queensland and NSW, is there a mandatory regulatory requirement to consult with the Fire Brigade on certain matters, although in some other jurisdictions this is done on a voluntary basis. In the ACT, NT, SA and WA, there are no registration or accreditation schemes to identify fire safety engineers or to demonstrate their competency through relevant qualifications or experience.

Given the lack of controls over the practice of fire safety engineering in several states and territories, it follows that there is a lack of audit and enforcement of fire safety engineers and their performance. Thus, there are no requirements or standards against which to judge performance and competency.

What’s next: recommendations moving forward

These Warren Centre findings of national inconsistency and widespread lack of controls over fire safety engineering practice appear to cast doubts on the quality of performance-based fire safety engineering. Such doubts could potentially erode market confidence in the use of performance-based fire safety engineering and certainly threaten the likelihood of consistently sound fire safety outcomes for the Australian communities where competency and professional performance in practice are not regulated.

The development of a national model set of regulatory controls for fire safety engineering, including design fire safety engineers, peer reviewers, authority approval of Performance Solutions, and fire brigade officials reviewing designs, needs to be developed and implemented across all Australian jurisdictions as soon as possible. It should be based on best practice and aim to achieve national consistency.

Update: Latest response from governments

On March 1, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) awarded a $5.7million judgment against the fire engineer, building certifier and architects in the 2014 Lacrosse Fire in favour of the building owners.  Just before entering caretaker mode before this week’s election, the NSW Government promised to overhaul compliance reporting, to register engineers and other building practitioners and to protect homeowners with an upgraded duty of care.  The promises delivered alongside the final Opal Tower report appear to have been aimed to inoculate against criticism. At the Commonwealth and COAG level, the Building Confidence Report Implementation Plan was recently issued.  A 24 line, 11 column taxonomy of the recommendations and various jurisdictions repeats much of table 1 above, then focusses on BMF priorities which include that each jurisdiction requires the registration of engineers and fire safety practitioners.

Ongoing Warren Centre work

Currently, the project team is completing peer review on report three regarding various practice notes, engineering methods and guidelines.  A discussion initiated this week on engineers’ competencies and what roles professional engineers ought to play in a reformed future professional scope.

 


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This story is featured in the 22 March 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.