Improvements in fire protection are typically a matter of incremental progression. Large step-changes are rare. In the last 50 years, the only such step-change commonly referred to in Australia is the 1995 introduction of legislation requiring smoke alarms in residential buildings around the country.
In November 2018, we saw another of those step-changes with confirmation that the upcoming National Construction Code (NCC) 2019 would require fire sprinklers in all new residential buildings over three storeys and under 25m in height, going beyond the previous requirement for sprinklers only in residential buildings above 25m.
It is the culmination of six years of ground-breaking collaborative work and a proposal submitted by Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia), Fire and Rescue NSW, the CSIRO and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC).
Coming into effect with the NCC 2019 in May 2019, the new sprinkler requirements will fundamentally improve the life safety of residents in the more than 700 buildings of this type constructed each year.
In Australia, residential buildings under 25m have not previously required sprinkler protection, a situation predicated on an old understanding of how fast a residential fire can spread. New testing has shown that fires in modern residences furnished with synthetic materials reach flashover point eight times faster than 50 years ago, often within two or three minutes – too fast for residents to evacuate from multi-storey buildings or for fire services to respond.
The terrible consequences of this mismatch between risk and protection was seen with the tragic death of Connie Zhang in 2012, who jumped from a fifth-storey balcony after being trapped by a fire in her Bankstown apartment, which was not required to be installed with sprinklers. The fire grew out of control extremely quickly, cutting off from escape her and housemate Ginger Jiang, who was left with severe injuries after also jumping from the balcony.
In the following coronial inquest, NSW Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon found that both women likely would have survived without significant injury if the building had been installed with fire sprinklers.
The inquest set in motion a six-year collaborative effort between industry, emergency services and researchers to explore, develop and propose effective, fit for purpose sprinkler systems for buildings over three stories and less than 25m in effective height, such as the Bankstown apartment building.
The project tested world-first fire sprinkler designs, unique in exploring use of the existing residential water supply or hydrant feed system to reduce cost and complexity, while still providing a high level of protection. The new designs were developed into two Technical Specifications by FPA Australia, which are now referenced in NCC 2019.
We must acknowledge that to
make this change happen has required a large amount of work and resources from across the fire protection industry, emergency services and research sector. It has also relied on the Australian Building Codes Board’s willingness to consider evidence-based proposals, and their fundamental commitment to life safety.
The outcome of all of this is arguably the biggest single improvement in the fire safety of Australians in the last 23 years. With it, we hope nobody in future will have to face what Connie Zhang and Ginger Jiang tragically did in that Bankstown apartment in 2012.
For more information, go to www.fpaa.com.au