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The Tipping Point – Positive Changes Necessary to Restore Confidence

In The Prince Machiavelli wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”.

Never has this been truer than in the current Australian fire protection landscape at the moment. And yet, despite the challenges and the detractors, our industry now stands poised at the tipping point of some of the most significant change in our history. The core driver of these changes is an acknowledgement at all levels of community and government that in a modern, innovative and developed nation, matters of fire safety must not be left to chance.

It has become clear in recent times and due to several high profile events, that community expectations about fire safety are not necessarily matched by the existing regulatory frameworks and industry self-regulation.

There is, for example, a community expectation that individuals who conduct work on lifesaving fire protection systems and equipment will be trained and competent. Unfortunately in Australia this is often not the case. Additionally, as a community we have an expectation that buildings will be constructed and approved to appropriate minimum levels of fire safety in accordance with relevant legislation. Again, recent events indicate that reality falls well short of expectation in this regard.

As the depth of the void between the current state of the industry and community expectations have become clearer, Fire Protection Association Australia has sought to take our members and our industry forward to restore confidence and to shape our own destiny, before a major fire event leads to regulation being forced upon us that might not be ideally suitable.

At its most basic level, this vision for a future safe from fire is made up of two critical components: competent personnel (fit-for-action) and products (fit-for-purpose).

People:
For well over a decade, Association members, regulators and the community have been calling for professional recognition / accreditation for the fire protection industry. This is because, despite the potential impact on life safety when things go wrong, the majority of fire protection activities in Australia are unlicensed. In 2013, without government funding or any other external support, and with reluctance from some corners of the industry FPA Australia launched the Fire Protection Accreditation Scheme (FPAS).

The scheme, which was introduced with the ‘Inspect and Test Category of work and now also covers Fire Systems Design and Fire Systems Certification, represents a first. The scheme is costly and resource intensive and we have had to be brave enough to invest in it, knowing that professional recognition is the only way forward for our industry. We now have almost 1000 accredited individuals and, more than ever, we are certain that the success of FPAS is fundamentally linked with the success of our industry.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di TitoPortrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Products:
It may seem remarkable that the issue of non-conforming products and fire safety has become such a hot topic in mainstream media in recent times, but this level of public interest is a direct reflection of the growing public unease with the performance of Australian building and construction generally.

Incidents such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recall of Infinity Electrical Cable, which can become a fire hazard in as little as two years and was installed in up to 40,000 homes Australia wide, have eroded confidence in the power of existing regulatory regimes to ensure compliance. Add to this the significant fire at the Lacrosse apartment in Melbourne’s docklands precinct, which was fueled by highly flammable non-compliant cladding installed on the exterior of the building, and it is understandable that the public and the media, have realised that something is wrong.

This publicity combined with strong advocacy undertaken by FPA Australia and other industry groups has recently yielded a significant breakthrough with a meeting of federal and state building minsters agreeing to a plan of action on non-conforming products. At the same time, an enquiry by the federal Senate has been launched into non-compliant building products. (Read more about this in our article in this issue of Asia Pacific fire.)

Our 2020 Vision:
Despite the immense challenges of driving positive change, it is clear that change has arrived and more is needed. We have reached the necessary tipping point and as an Association we have a clear strategy for the future.

By January 1 2020, our vision is that all FPA Australia members who conduct work in a category where FPAS exists will employ accredited staff and will be recognised as a professional company committed to training and continuing professional development. At the same time, by 2020 our goal is to see all products that present a risk to life safety due to fire undergo appropriate testing and certification, and then be listed on a comprehensive listing scheme.

We have less than five years to achieve our goal, but I am optimistic about the future. Through high-profile incidents, the community has demanded that we raise the bar for what is an acceptable level of fire risk posed by people and products in the fire protection industry. We are committed to meeting and exceeding their expectations, despite the challenges.

We must do this, in order to restore trust and to ensure the future of our industry. But most importantly, we must do it to achieve the overall vision of our Association – To lead and support a professional industry to minimise the impact of fire on life, property and the environment, for a safer community.

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FPA Australia CEO