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Fire Australia Conference – Protecting our most vulnerable

The recent Fire Australia Conference provided an excellent opportunity for the fire protection industry to hear from expert speakers on a range of topics. Many of the papers that were presented complemented others, and as I’ve said before, sharing knowledge helps find solutions.

One of the key presentations highlighted that caring for an ageing population would become an increasing focus, whilst another was concerned with identifying the fire risk faced by our most vulnerable sectors of society who live independently. One of the solutions to these concerns was outlined in a third paper which comprehensively detailed the experience in the UK with retrofitting sprinkler systems in social housing where these risks exist.

Our modern health systems and medical programs are giving all of us a better chance at a longer life resulting in an ageing population living in their own homes for longer.

The success of initiatives such as Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), also mean that more people with disabilities are living in their own homes and often independent of carers for much of the time.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Population Projections, 2012 – 2101, predict that nearly 20 per cent of Australians will be over 65 years of age by 2031 and up to eight per cent will be over 85 years of age by 2061. Other statistic show that about half of people aged over 65 years will have some form of disability (ABS Age Matters).

L-R FPA Australia CEO Scott Williams, NSW Minister Matt Kean, FPA Australia National President Chris Orr launch Fire Australia.

L-R FPA Australia CEO Scott Williams, NSW Minister Matt Kean, FPA Australia National President Chris Orr launch Fire Australia.

Fire statistics show that the key hazards faced in residential buildings come from smoking, portable heaters, cooking and in some cases (aligned with mental health issues), deliberate acts to start fires.

Fire is a time critical emergency where delays in identification and response can be fatal. Where occupants have a physical disability, this has clear implications on the ability for them to evacuate safely even when a fire has been identified. Where the disability is related to mental health issues, the cognitive ability to understand the risk from fire and then respond appropriately can be impaired.

According to another paper presented at Fire Australia – Fire Safety and the National Disability Scheme – there is a duty of care for professional organisations providing accommodation for vulnerable occupants to assess fire risks and tailor designs and systems to respond to these risks. This includes assessing a person’s ability to manage themselves in a fire emergency and anticipating and accounting for the factors that may impact on their response.

Where there is a 24 hour carer who can assist with evacuation, fire hazards are reduced by prohibiting smoking and, if there are no residents with a history of mental impairment or fire lighting behaviour, simple measures like additional smoke alarms may complement standard requirements.

Jim Pauley lays out the future challenges for the industry.

Jim Pauley lays out the future challenges for the industry.

But in more high risk cases, installation of automatic sprinkler systems and passive fire protection systems to subdue the fire development and reduce fire and smoke spread providing additional time to evacuate may be necessary to complement early detection of fire. Of course, many residential buildings are not fitted with sprinklers and retrofitting sprinklers to buildings may be complex and expensive. But in the UK a project funded and directed by the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) and supported by Reliable Automatic Sprinklers showed it was possible to put sprinkler systems into existing buildings for around AUD$2,000 per installation. The buildings targeted were multi-storey social housing apartment blocks, mainly two bedrooms.

There is already a documented case of an elderly and impaired person surviving a fire in one of the project apartments because the retrofitted system reacted to a fire and suppressed it providing enough time for evacuation.

Good fire safety outcomes are achieved from a holistic approach that considers, building use, identification of fire hazards and occupant characteristics, and tailoring the design, installation and maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment to respond to the associated risks. The fire protection industry has developed a range of products both active and passive that can be sourced and implemented to provide appropriate solutions. These were on display at the largest Tradeshow we’ve ever hosted. Advances in technology mean that these products are increasing in their functionality and flexibility, while reducing in cost to implement and will play a growing role in protecting an ageing and vulnerable population.

So as our population ages and residential fire risks increase, improving technology, techniques and capacity of the fire protection industry will remain an important focus to deliver the safety we expect for our most vulnerable citizens.

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

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FPA Australia CEO

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