Australia’s population is growing, adding around 400,000 people per year to our suburbs and towns.
This has led to a shift in the construction of residential buildings away from stand-alone dwellings on the traditional quarter-acre block to medium- and high-density accommodation.
Apartment buildings and townhouses currently make up a third of our residential stock, but represent two-thirds of new housing approvals.
A significant increase in the use of synthetic furnishings over the last 30 years has added considerably to the fuel load within the average residence, but fire-safety regulation has not moved as fast.
Research by UL in the United States found that a home with modern furnishings reached flashover within 3 minutes and 40 seconds – significantly less than the 29 minutes for a home with traditional furniture.
This risk to residents is further increased by the toxicity of smoke from synthetic materials and the time it takes firefighters (7–9 minutes in urban areas) to arrive after a fire is detected.
It is a frightening scenario.
In New South Wales, the death of one resident and permanent injury of another in a non-sprinkler protected apartment block in Bankstown led to the Coroner recommending that all new class 2 and 3 apartment buildings be installed with fit-for-purpose cost-effective fire-sprinkler systems, through an amendment to Australia’s National Construction Code (NCC).
In response, Fire and Rescue NSW, (FRNSW), Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC), Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia), and CSIRO set out to design such systems.
Their research and experimental testing found that a non-sprinkler-protected room can reach flashover even faster than expected – 2 minutes and 45 seconds.
Sprinklers were found to improve tenability by reducing toxicity and temperature levels, giving more time for occupants to escape the fire safely.
This led to the development of sprinkler systems that would increase safety but at minimal or no additional cost or complexity to make them more viable for builders.
The result was Technical Specifications FPAA101D and FPAA101H, published by FPA Australia in 2018, which are world-leading sprinkler designs that deliver affordable fire protection and which are now referenced standards in the NCC for residential apartment buildings over three storeys but less than 25m in height.
Some of the key benefits of these designs are that they:
- use drinking water or hydrant water supply, rather than relying upon dedicated fire-sprinkler water supply;
- eliminate ongoing routine testing and the associated cost to owners and tenants; and
- are cost-effective, due to fast construction methods and the elimination of conventional sprinkler valve assembly.
- Statistical and risk analysis showed that these sprinklers reduced risks by a minimum of 67%, from 3.9 fatalities per 1,000 fire starts to:
- 1.3 fatalities for FPAA101D; and
- 1.1 fatalities for FPAA101H.
- The analysis also demonstrated a corresponding decrease in the number of injuries from fires.
- In addition, the use of these sprinklers in apartment buildings will deliver other benefits:
- reducing the incidence of smoke inhalation by occupants;
- increasing safety for firefighters, by lessening the severity of the fire;
- reducing insurance premiums and protecting property by minimizing damage;
- reducing the effects of other fire-protection defects that may exist within a building, such as unprotected penetrations or high fuel loads; and
- assisting with the emergency evacuation of residents especially the elderly and people with disabilities.
FPA Australia is now seeing these systems being installed throughout Australia – championed by Australia’s Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, which is working to educate the public – and we are monitoring their successes and challenges so that we can enhance future iterations of the technical specifications.
The introduction of FPAA101D and FPAA101H is a significant step forward in fire safety, and will undoubtedly save lives, by introducing a new layer of sprinkler protection for your family, friends, neighbours, firefighters and the community.