As we forge ahead in the face of ongoing government reform initiatives, Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) sought insights from some of our former presidents, and the current office-bearer, about what the future holds.
As Australia’s peak industry body for fire protection, and the industry’s major technical and educational organisation, FPA Australia is the descendant of almost 100 years of industry representation.
Formed in 1997 through the merger of Fire Protection Industry Association Australia (established in 1926) and the Australian Fire Protection Association (established in 1960), FPA Australia was formed to be a single body that could represent the needs and goals of our industry.
Our presidents and board directors are icons of the industry, who have brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the Association, allowing it to establish itself as the ‘Voice of Fire Protection’. Many of these leaders have maintained their association with FPA Australia, and we took the opportunity to ask five of them – Barry Lee OAM (1991–93 and 1997–98), Neil Bibby (1994–96 and 1998–2000), Peter Johnson (2005–08), Glenn Talbot (2010–12) and Bill Lea AFSM (2018–present) – for their views of our history and where we are headed.
What is fire protection?
The presidents largely agreed that fire protection (or fire safety) relates to keeping people, property, business operations and the environment safe from the risk of fire, by extinguishing or containing it. It poses a never-ending series of challenges, particularly as our communities become more urbanised, population densities increase, and civilisation encroaches on bushland areas, all while society’s appetite for risk has greatly diminished.
The industry ranges from fire safety design, construction, prevention, maintenance and management to fire brigade operations, covering buildings, transport infrastructure, industrial facilities, community infrastructure and the impacts of bushfires.
As an industry, fire protection offers many opportunities, experiences and comradery, and the development of new technologies plays an important role in delivering safer communities.
‘If the fire service has to intervene, fire protection has failed.’ – Neil Bibby
How has the industry changed?
Since FPA Australia was created, the industry has seen companies go from taking responsibility for all aspects of fire protection – including manufacture, design, installation and maintenance – to specialising in providing equipment to fire protection contractors or performing specific roles.
This has led to changes to training and accreditation systems, so that practitioners can be upskilled and take responsibility for the quality of their work. Both government and the industry strongly support these developments as a way to deliver greater accountability and professionalism.
The fire protection sector has long embraced technology and had a focus on technical excellence, and this has seen substantial amendments to standards and regulations that will deliver increased community safety.
The increased societal focus on climate change and sustainability has been experienced in our industry too, in part by an increase in the incidence and severity of bushfires in Australia and overseas. This has altered practices and improved the science of fire, as the industry adjusts to society’s expectations.
The sustainability agenda has had an impact in the opposite direction too – a push for energy efficiency was a significant contributing factor to an increased use of flammable cladding without giving proper regard to life safety. This has resulted in enormous replacement costs for the community, rapid increases in professional indemnity insurance prices and a comprehensive regulatory reform agenda.
We can expect these trends to continue over coming years.
‘Society’s and government’s expectations have changed completely, particularly since Grenfell. Our industry is expected to be more accountable and professional at all levels.’ – Bill Lea
How has the Association changed?
The presidents all felt that FPA Australia has become stronger and seen an increase in activities and staff numbers over the last couple of decades.
Its influence with governments and regulators has increased through proactive advocacy, and its commitment to all practitioners being competent and registered through the FPAS scheme has transformed it into a leader in accreditation and a major training agency.
Internationally, the Association is gaining greater recognition through its relationship with organisations like the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in the United States, and the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations Asia (CFPA-A).
Organisationally, this increased activity has seen changes to the Association’s structure and focus, which has been facilitated through better resourcing and a more commercial mindset. Its engagement with members and other stakeholders has been extended through social media, the ongoing delivery of the Fire Australia conference and tradeshow, industry awards dinners and Fire Australia magazine, which has allowed the Association to stay connected and to communicate the fire safety message.
The technical part of FPA Australia’s operations has been growing more professional, and the relationships with Australian Standards (which spans over three decades) and the Australian Building Codes Board are as strong as ever. This knowledge and experience enables the organisation to improve standards and regulations and deliver support and guidance to industry.
‘Today’s FPA is one of the leading industry associations in Australia, a credit to the staff and Board, past and present.’ – Glenn Talbot
What does the industry do well?
The presidents credited the industry for playing an important and effective role in advocating for public safety, supported through the ongoing strong relationships with standards-setting bodies and regulators.
This influence has seen government and industry jointly embrace better-quality training and the introduction of accreditation – ensuring accountability through codes of practice – to help practitioners to meet the expectations of the community.
The support provided by the industry to business and the public, through the design, installation, testing and maintenance of fire safety systems has been invaluable, and will continue to influence better safety outcomes.
‘The fire protection part of the industry … has continued to lead standards development and design, particularly for the active systems.’ – Peter Johnson
Where are improvements needed?
The FPA Australia presidents broadly agreed that industry can always make improvements, but views differed about the areas worthy of attention.
While there was general support for the industry’s approach to training and accreditation, it was agreed that more can be done to improve the skills, knowledge and professionalism of the sector.
One area where additional training might be needed is in interpreting standards and regulations, where inconsistency and confusion is currently leading to substandard maintenance outcomes. Routine service work is improving, but this poor understanding is affecting performance.
Improving knowledge in this space should also be extended to facility managers, who are not always well versed in what constitutes sound longer-term fire protection.
Practitioners need to understand what constitutes good risk management and how to weigh safety outcomes up against their economic impacts. This may eventually extend to gaining better insights into the role of climate and how it will affect our businesses in the coming years.
The fire performance of materials and passive systems – not just in terms of installation but also quality assurance and annual assessment – is increasingly important, and the industry needs more personnel with the skills to design, install and assess these systems.
Not only do building surveyors and inspectors need to acknowledge their roles in approving these systems but they also need to get better at identifying their potential conflicts of interest and to understand that they are not responsible for the design but for certifying the building on behalf of the public.
The presidents supported innovation and technology, and felt that more could be done to help entrepreneurs bring new and exciting products to market.
‘The industry is going to see increasing competition from “man in the van” operators. While competition is not a bad thing, fire protection is a complex technical business and advice given needs to be reliable.’ – Barry Lee
Where will the industry be in the next five years?
So, what does the future hold? Put simply: training.
The need for all fire safety practitioners to have qualifications, experience and registration to demonstrate their competency will only grow as governments and consumers demand safety improvements and the industry strives to regain trust and confidence.
Industry leaders must develop and promote strong career paths across all sectors of the fire safety industry, promote new initiatives in fire safety education, and tap into international leading practice. To ensure that it has a viable future, our sector will need to position itself as an attractive employment prospect for the next generation of workers.
The increased focus of government on the construction sector is going to be translated into tighter regulation and more prescriptive qualification frameworks for practitioners. Proactivity on the part of the fire protection industry will help to make these moves more manageable.
Driven by a spate of cladding fires, it is likely that product certification and policing are also going to become more common to ensure that occupants of residential buildings, in particular, can rest a little easier.
From the Association’s perspective, all of this means that we will need to have a greater political impact at both state and federal level, and to build up strong partnerships with politicians and regulators alike.
However, it is important that we promote the technical and specialised aspects of our sector and not become seen as a commodity service to the greater building industry. Fire protection is an essential service, and the industry needs to remind itself of that fact regularly.
‘Our industry will need to raise the bar in terms of accountability, knowledge and professionalism. We can either take this challenge head on and drive the process of change or have governments impose changes upon us.’ – Bill Lea
Advice for the next generation
Finally, we asked each of our presidents to reflect on what they would tell their younger self if they were starting in the industry now, to help guide our up-and-coming practitioners.
While the suggestion to ‘go fishing’ might not help to establish a successful career in the fire protection industry, a focus on education, training and earning your qualifications might.
Constant self-development is the key – the more training you can undertake and skills you can attain, the more you’ll be able to adapt to a changing industry and help it to grow in return.
But qualifications are not the only element. While formal engineering qualifications, diplomas and certificates are important, it’s wise to work in service departments too.
Picking up skills across a variety of systems may help you to develop a broad understanding of your employer’s scope of business, and this will make you a valuable employee.
A career in fire safety, whatever the role, has a strong social purpose to save lives, property and the environment, and can take a practitioner on a richly rewarding journey within Australia or around the world.
Taking the road least travelled may not be the easiest trip, but it will be the most interesting. And it might just take you to a few good fishing spots.
‘Whatever the employer’s scope of business, make it a goal to learn everything possible about the concern’s products and services. With a little bit of luck, the results will be rewarding from all points of view!’ – Barry Lee