We are living in unprecedented times, with COVID-19 gripping communities across the globe. Shutdowns, restrictions and social distancing have changed the nature of business and created uncertainty for every industry. In Australia, the Commonwealth Government has led a National Cabinet of its regional counterparts to determine the most effective strategy to deal with the crisis. As a federal system of government, states and territories have responsibility for approving and implementing any proposed initiatives.
One of the most significant decisions was to determine which businesses would be deemed ‘non-essential’, and therefore unable to operate.
As the pandemic unfolded, governments increasingly placed these restrictions on businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 but provided little guidance on what might be an ‘essential’ business.
There was significant concern that fire protection might also come to be considered ‘non-essential’, and practitioners were finding that not only were owners and occupiers beginning to prevent them from entering buildings but employees were starting to express apprehensions about their own safety.
This prompted Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) to write to relevant state and territory ministers to seek support for our industry.
Our opinion is that the routine maintenance of fire-protection services is essential because it provides support to legislated essential services, such as the fire brigades, by limiting the spread of fire.
Ministers declared that businesses not designated ‘non-essential’ could continue to operate, provided that precautions were taken.
Rethinking service delivery
Having established that the manufacture, design or installation of fire-protection systems, routine servicing and assessment or the like, have not been deemed as ‘non-essential’, companies have had to adjust to new ways of conducting their business.
Shutdowns, restrictions and social distancing have complicated fire-protection work.
Certain buildings – such as health care, aged care, or education buildings – are difficult to access, given their vulnerable populations, while residential buildings pose a particular conundrum, given an increase in working from home, self-isolation and quarantine.
These factors have resulted in several issues: unoccupied or underused buildings; restricted access to buildings or parts of buildings; and the need to undertake precautions to protect both practitioners and building occupants from possible spread of the virus.
FPA Australia – like other fire-protection associations globally (such as NFPA (USA), FIA (UK), etc.) –have emphasised the importance of continuing to conduct routine service of fire-protection systems and equipment in buildings.
Such routine service ensures that these systems and equipment remain in working order not only for when buildings are occupied again but so they will operate if there is a fire incident even while the building is unoccupied.
Practitioners recognise the financial impacts of the pandemic and most are working with clients to manage such routine service commitments within allowable tolerances under the relevant Australian Standards.
However, whether people are there or not, fire systems need to operate to detect fire, supress fire growth, protect the asset and occupants, and ensure business continuity.
Neglecting these systems could potentially result in property losses that insurers may refuse to honour to cover, in part or in full, because appropriate precautions weren’t taken.
Even more concerning is the fact that some systems will degrade significantly if not maintained, making it more costly and complicated to reboot them if they are not operational for a period of time.
The appearance of diseases such as Legionella pose a serious risk to building occupants, if systems are not attended to.
The need for negotiation
Fortunately, as the spread of the virus has been relatively contained for now in Australia, routine service work and annual compliance reporting have been able to continue.
Early in the pandemic, when the extent of the virus and response was unclear, there was significant concern that building owners and occupiers may not be able to maintain their systems or to comply with regulatory reporting obligations.
Indeed, some owners and occupiers resisted fire-safety work on the basis that their building was empty, residents were concerned, or the financial impact of the pandemic had affected cash flow.
Practitioners couldn’t just walk into buildings and act as they always had – they had to demonstrate sensitivity to these concerns and commit to communication.
Upfront discussions are needed between practitioners, clients, tenants and sometimes local authorities, to set the ground rules of fire-protection work – what will be done, where, how, and what precautions will need to be taken.
With social distancing, better hygiene practices, and personal protective gear now a cornerstone of fire safety, companies have focused on providing appropriate support for their teams while delivering for their customers.
Detailed risk and hazard assessments allow them to determine whether it is safe to enter and work in a particular location, and innovative ways to maintain systems are becoming more important, so that they don’t risk exposing clients or colleagues.
Changes to schedules to minimize contact with building occupants, such as conducting work outside of normal business hours or delaying activity under acceptable tolerances, are giving greater flexibility for practitioners and have been relatively easy to implement.
All parties (employers, employees, building owners, agents and occupiers) have had to adjust their businesses to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and help to limit any possible spread of the virus.
Fire-protection companies (and indeed all businesses) have had to implement standard risk-management procedures including developing procedures for their own workplace, when visiting clients, and for undertaking necessary activities.
- staff briefings on infection-control procedures (social distancing, hygiene, cleaning, PPE, etc.);
- the provision of appropriate supplies of PPE, cleaning materials, etc., in the face of significant competition; and
- preparing and implementing Safe Work Method Statements for fire-protection work, covering infection prevention and control.
State, territory and Commonwealth governments are also providing information and support to practitioners and building occupants to understand potential risks and hazards and how to manage them.
The bottom line
The last issue facing the fire-protection industry in Australia is one felt across all industries (especially retail, hospitality, entertainment and tourism): finances.
While the impacts of coronavirus were relatively slow to reveal themselves, practitioners are reporting that clients are increasingly finding it hard to find the resources to fund these essential services.
Despite government support, many practitioners have declining income and have had to make the difficult decision to make staff redundant, stand them down, or reduce their hours, or alternatively even to close the business.
Government initiatives such as the $1,500 per fortnight JobKeeper package hold some promise but may not free up resources sufficiently to allow the company to keep operating.
Restructures and redeployments can provide some relief, but many have not had the flexibility to change their business models.
While some companies are stepping in to help existing clients at their own cost, rather than allowing their systems to degrade, others are demanding upfront payments for services, to ensure that bills are going to be honoured. On the other hand, for a lucky few, work has never been so plentiful!
The full impact of this is yet to be felt, but it has clearly affected companies both large and small.
It is fortunate that the fire-protection industry is being considered an essential service, but this has not quarantined many from the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Associations such as FPA Australia are adopting online options to deliver seminars and training and help practitioners to maintain their skills, and many experienced practitioners are taking the time to provide guidance and advice to their peers.
Despite all of the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic the Australian fire-protection industry has not lost sight of its ultimate purpose.
Our practitioners will continue to work tirelessly with clients, tenants, allied industries and government to ensure that people and property will always be protected from the adverse risks of fire.
For more information, go to fpaa.com.au