The raised awareness in Australia with buildings that have combustible cladding is the result of the Grenfell Tower tragedy that occurred in London back in 2017, which resulted in 72 deaths and over 70 injuries, one of the most significant structural fires in over 30 years in the UK, even though, a cladding fire had occurred in Lacrosse Apartments in November of 2014 and an apartment fire broke out at the Neo200 Apartment building in February 2019, both in Melbourne, luckily there was no loss of life.
The Co-Chairs, The Hon. Ted Baillieu and Professor The Hon. John Thwaites of the Victorian Cladding Taskforce, released their final report in July 2019 making a total of 37 recommendations. Over, 1198 buildings were inspected by an expert panel, resulting in 7% buildings being considered extreme risk whilst 38% being considered high risk. This represents a significant proportion of residential stock risk to the occupants and value to the economy.
Whilst the main focus has been on combustible cladding in buildings, there is another issue being Performance Solutions to the National Construction Code, in particular the Fire Safety Systems and its impact on persons with a disability.
It is commonly assumed that compliance with the Deemed-to-Satisfy (DtS) provisions of the National Construction Code Series, Building Code of Australia Volume One is sufficient to achieve a satisfactory level of performance and safety. However, it needs to be understood that except for access considerations, the DtS provisions have been largely written around non-disabled occupants. The same is true for dwellings covered by Volume Two of the Building Code of Australia.
Moreover, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) imposes duties on organisations and changed the way buildings are to be managed, in particular in the evacuation of persons with a disability or people with a vulnerability. It should be understood that it is unlawful to treat people with disabilities any less favourably than non-disabled persons. Therefore, the responsibility of those persons who have control of, or have safety obligations to ensure that arrangements are in place for an evacuation of all occupants in the building should the need arise.
In the context, vulnerable persons can be taken as persons with a physical or mental disability or persons whose current state would make it difficult to utilise the ordinary means of evacuation at all or within an acceptable time frame.
Examples of building situations containing vulnerable persons include:
- Multi-storey residential buildings with a percentage of persons having limited mobility
- Patient care areas within hospital buildings
- Aged care and ageing-in-place facilities
- National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) clients within multi-level and single level residential buildings
- Multi-level school buildings or childcare centres with a proportion of vulnerable occupants
The latter two situations are of more recent origin and are the result of the implementation of the NDIS and the increased trend towards urbanisation where less footprint areas are available for schools and other community facilities. As at 30 September 2019, there are 314,247 people that have active and an approved plan in place and many of these people will reside in ordinary Class 1a buildings perhaps without adequate fire safety measures.
It is always better from a risk perspective to limit the likelihood of a serious fire event and this can be achieved through good fire safety design coupled with proper maintenance of the fire safety systems. The design also needs to consider the movement of vulnerable occupants within and out of the building (horizontal and vertical movement) and the development of an associated Emergency Management Plan that can be practically implemented in the event of an Emergency.
The challenges being faced is the sudden market demand these requirements will create, and the ability of the fire protection industry to meet it. When the NDIS is fully rolled out across Australia in the first half of 2019, for instance, it’s estimated it will cover 105,000 people in Victoria. That could potentially generate unexpected and unmanageable demand for fire safety professional that increases the likelihood that NDIS clients will be left unable to find suitable housing or are left without fire safety systems they may need.
The safety of all people is of paramount importance, whether they are abled or disabled persons and their needs must be taken into account when designing and planning any building.
Residential type buildings have completely different characteristics in both its design and layout to that of offices, hotels or public buildings with respect to distinctive population numbers. The occupants maybe asleep or not be dressed appropriately making them unready for an evacuation or even aware that they need to be evacuated as experienced in the Neo200 fire in Melbourne in February 2019.
It is more difficult to organise an evacuation plan for people who are casually visiting a building or residing on a one-off basis (Airbnb). However, by assessing the difficulty in evacuating and the types of evacuation that could be provided within the building, it will be easier to address those needs.
There have been literature reviews undertaken by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers into human behaviour in a fire, which have highlighted that the familiarity of occupants with the buildings layout and its fire safety systems is an important factor when analysing and assessing the occupants’ response and strategy in evacuating the building during an emergency such as a fire. Based on these research studies, the main users of a building, being the residents, will generally have knowledge of the nearest exit and any alternative exit as well as any warning systems in place, however may not know how to evacuate safety, especially if they have a disability.
The evacuation process of a high-rise building particularly for persons with a disability is influenced by the characteristics and types of vertical egress provisions provided. In present day buildings are being constructed higher as well as having large open spaces such as atriums, this needs to be taken into account and assessed against the back-drop of the occupant’s demographics and characteristics.
In having stair evacuations does present some significant problems for people with disabilities. Different evacuation problems have been analysed in the literature such as the ability of the occupants to use stairs with or without aid, its impact on the evacuation process with those that are assisting them, and the use of dedicated stair devices on the variability of the possible confusions on others using the stairs.
In planning an evacuation, it is about planning for the unexpected, and people with a disability are no different from anyone else when it comes to being evacuated safely. Whilst there are procedures and requirements in place for most types of buildings, they are not generally in place for Class 2 residential type buildings.
When planning evacuation procedures for persons with a disability, designers should not make assumptions about their abilities and should not be instinctively assuming that they cannot leave the premises independently, especially if suitable aids and adaptations are provided.
The purposely designed evacuation lifts and fire-fighting lifts have special features and measures in place which could allow for their use in the event of fire. What needs to be understood is that people with a disability should not be required to wait for the main flow of people to leave the building. The success in the planning is to understand the needs of the individual and that each requirement needs to be treated accordingly.
Australian Standard AS3745
The objective of this Standard is to enhance the safety of people in facilities, by providing a framework for emergency planning, it applies only to the human/life safety aspects of emergencies within facilities.
In terms of Australia, the National Construction Code, Building Code of Australia and the relevant Australian Standards only establishes the minimum requirements in the design of a multi-storey buildings, sometimes there is a need for additional fire and life safety measures, so as to mitigate the complexity and the additional difficulties in fire-fighting and rescue operations.
The Fire Engineering design needs to take into account how evacuation models are used in the design process in particular to its relationship to that of the performance-based design approach being more widely used.
An Emergency Management Plan needs to be prepared and interfaced with the design aspects and will need to be adapted to the capabilities of vulnerable persons and the design of the building.
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- The National Construction Code Series is produced and maintained by the Australian Building Codes Board on behalf of the Australian Government and each State and Territory government
- SFPE Engineering Guide – Human Behavior in Fire, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD, 2003
- Boyce KE, Shields TJ(1999) Towards the characterisation of building occupancies for fire safety engineering: capabilities of disabled people moving horizontally and up an incline. Fire Technol 35(1):51–67
- Shields TJ et al. 2009 – Fire Safety Journal 2009 – ‘The behaviour and evacuation experiences of WTC 9/11 evacuees with self-designated mobility impairments.