Recently, a fire-safety assessor reported that he had come to an impasse. A building under his care needed a five-year pressure test, but the testing company wouldn’t do it without being indemnified, in case the system blew out. The client’s insurer, however, refused to give said indemnity.
The practitioner was stuck – could he assess the system if that test hadn’t been carried out? If so, what could he say about its performance? What liability did he carry personally? More importantly, how could he ensure that the council would not sue his client, who would most likely blame him for not completing his assessment?
The answer? By choosing his words very carefully he was able to advise that the system worked on town water, but had not been pressure tested, and to explain to the client the risks of not proceeding with that testing.
This example is quite informative: on the one hand, nobody wants to be financially accountable if the system fails; on the other, because of that demarcation dispute the client and the assessor are forced to make decisions that potentially endanger life safety and the property itself.
For if the system were to fail when the fire brigade was in attendance, at the very best it could result in damage to the building – at worst, it could result in the death of a firefighter or an occupant. And you can guarantee that, if the latter were to happen, the Coroner wouldn’t be lenient with anybody!
This scenario can be expected from a culture that has allowed fire protection to be seen purely as a compliance cost, rather than a benefit to the property.
It results in the common complaint from fire-safety practitioners of a race to the bottom, as owners and managers seek cheaper, less experienced, less scrupulous people to sign paperwork that says that everything is OK, without the appropriate assessment. The compliance lens does not deliver better, safer buildings.
In fact, looking at fire safety solely as a property management line item obscures a bigger, more important message. The modern building contains several features designed to protect life and property. Each of these increases the resilience of a building and significantly reduces the potential for property damage and the risk of injury and death. They provide peace of mind not only to property owners or managers but also to building occupants, fire brigades and the broader community.
What is generally less understood, however, is the value such elements bring to a building if they are properly designed, installed, operated and maintained. Research carried out by UL in the United States found fires in apartments with modern furnishings will flashover in only 3 minutes and 40 seconds, compared to 29 minutes for those with older furniture. Yet it takes the fire brigade on average around 7 to 9 minutes to arrive on site. Without effective fire systems, tragedy is the most likely result.
A study by Fire and Rescue NSW and the CSIRO in the wake of the 2012 Bankstown apartment fire found that a sprinkler system can effectively suppress a fire for 14 minutes or more and keep conditions tenable for occupants for a significant period. So, a working sprinkler system is a key factor as to whether a building and its occupants will survive.
Fire-safety systems such as these will help to ensure that assets are preserved, businesses can operate, families aren’t devastated, and the insurance remains affordable.
This benefit is not solely delivered by sprinklers. All fire-safety features – wet systems, detection systems, passive features – deliver tangible benefits to the buildings they protect.
This inherent value is preserved when owners and managers invest in maintaining their systems and recognize the benefits of effective fire protection. But to achieve this, we all need to move beyond compliance and recognize that fire-safety systems are assets in their own right.
Buildings, occupants and the broader community deserve it.
For more information, go to fpaa.com.au