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After Years of Complacency, Reform has Arrived

Times certainly have changed. It wasn’t so long ago the notion that governments would take up issues of non-compliant building products would have been laughable. And yet today we have multiple government inquiries into just that issue. Outcomes of these inquiries and other building and construction legislative reviews will send shockwaves through the building, construction and fire protection industries – and with good reason. As an industry we must now decide our own destiny, before governments decide it for us.

In Victoria, hundreds of buildings in Melbourne’s CBD are being investigated for non-compliant cladding products at precisely the same time that a new Building Act is being drafted. Due to these high profile issues it is not facetious to imagine that the new Act may pave the way for state-based accreditation or licensing of building practitioners.

There is much internal rancour among the players in Victoria, with many unhappy with the performance of regulatory bodies and councils. The Victorian Coroner has been dragged into the fray, and the Ombudsman will no doubt soon be once again forced to investigate the regulation of the building industry. The gift of clairvoyance is not required to see that the Victorian building and construction industry will have more reviews and investigations in its future, but it is action that is needed, not investigation. The industry’s flaws are plain to see and well-known to all involved.

New South Wales faces its own upheaval. The most recent review into the Building Professionals Act has recommended sweeping changes to the way individuals are recognised for their skills and competence. At the same time a Coronial Inquest into the Death of Pinkang (Connie) Zhang in the tragic Bankstown apartment fire of 2012 has echoed many of the sentiments of the Act Review as well as recommending changes to the Building Code of Australia (BCA) to require all apartments under 25 metres to have automatic fire sprinklers in residential areas: a reform long championed by FPA Australia.

At the federal level a Senate inquiry into non-conforming products will soon conclude and will likely recommend changes to the way building products are approved and sold in Australia. At the same time, a recent meeting of federal, state and territory building ministers voted to consider changing the way evidence of suitability is demonstrated in the BCA to better reflect the potential safety risk of products. The meeting also recommended the Australian Building Codes Board consider whether sprinklers on apartment balconies should be included in the Code.

FPA Australia advocates for meaningful fire safety reforms every day, however, as an industry and as an Association, we can only provide guidance to these political inquiries, reviews, investigations and committees. We cannot chart their course, nor can we perfectly predict their outcomes.

What we can do as an industry, indeed what we must do, is get prepared – because change is coming.

For example, it is certain that, in the future, all individuals working on lifesaving fire protection systems and equipment will require some form of accreditation. It is absurd that this is not already the case. In addition, it is certain that, at some time in the future, the nature of building design and approval will change so that only trained, competent and accredited individuals will be able to design, install, commission and certify important life safety measures in Australian buildings.

We can be certain of these changes, because the community already expects they are in place. The rolling media interest in the safety crisis in Australian buildings highlights community disbelief and dismay that these safeguards do not exist.

Too many people have either died tragically or come terrifyingly close to losing their lives as a result of poor practices in the building and construction industry; practices which have been shown to be out of step with community expectations. The media has rightly highlighted these concerns, politicians have become nervous, and now suddenly all options for reform are on the table.

We can only hope that whatever changes come will lead to better fire protection outcomes for the community. But, come what may, we can only guarantee our industry’s future by ensuring our people are trained, competent and professional now. In the new built environment the most successful companies and individuals will be those that saw this writing on the wall early and responded, before their hands were forced.

For more information, go to www.fpaa.com.au

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FPA Australia CEO