When we think about fire safety, and the fact that so much of our time is spent indoors, it becomes clear that fire safety rules need to be written into the codes and regulations for our buildings. Not only do we need to mitigate the potential damage and casualties from fire hazards by ensuring appropriate working smoke alarms, sprinklers and evacuation procedures, we need to start with prevention and protection by using the right building materials in the first place.
The November 2014 high-rise apartment fires in Melbourne’s Docklands have provided an unfortunate testament to this fact. More than 500 people were evacuated from a high-rise apartment building as a fire broke out. The damage to the building was estimated at $2 million. While the cause of the fire was deemed accidental, a report by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne says that the external cladding for the building did not comply with combustibility standards for a high-rise building, and contributed to the swift spread of the fire from floor to floor, which burnt vertically from the sixth storey to the top of the building on the 21st floor. Thanks to the speedy work of the fire fighters and the building’s sprinkler systems, all occupants were evacuated quickly and further damage was prevented.
Fire safety requirements in Australia’s building code
In Australia, fire safety requirements are set out by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) in the National Construction Code (NCC). The NCC provides performance requirements for many aspects of building and construction which are based on outcomes. For example, the regulators may call for all buildings and fittings to be constructed in a way that meets minimum performance requirements for combustibility, and for all buildings to install up-to-date fire detection and sprinkler systems. These requirements are set out in the NCC, which may then refer to Australian or international standards as one way for builders to meet these requirements.
Some fire-related Australian standards referenced in the National Construction Code include the joint Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1530 Methods for fire tests on building materials, components and structure; AS/NZS 1668, The use of ventilation and airconditioning in buildings, Part 1, Fire and smoke control in multi-compartment buildings; and AS 3786 Smoke alarms, to name a few.
Our role in the standards and conformance system
But having the right standards is just one part of the story. As shown by the case of the Melbourne Docklands fire, applying and complying with standards is quite another matter. And we all have a role to play.
On Standards Australia’s part, we work closely with the Australian government and stakeholders from the industry and community to develop Standards related to fire detection and fire safety, which are referenced in Australia’s building and construction code.
We are a developer of Standards; we do not enforce, regulate or certify compliance with these Standards. What we do is to form technical committees by bringing together relevant parties and stakeholders. Through a process of consensus, these committees develop standards and technical documents for Australia’s net benefit. It is then up to regulators to make these standards mandatory in their regulation and to enforce them.
In the same report on the Melbourne Docklands apartment fire, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade called for people in the building industry – such as designers, surveyors and certifiers – to adopt building products with current certificates of compliance to fire safety standards, and to ensure compliance with all conditions imposed on the certificate.
International cooperation on standards
While it is important for all stakeholders to work together on a harmonised standards and conformance system, it is equally important for countries to work together on the global level to share best practices and technology.
On the international front, we have been very active in strengthening our partnerships with other countries. An exciting project underway is in New Caledonia in collaboration with AFNOR, the French national standards body. As a start, we will share best practices, experiences and information in the realm of building and construction standards, with a focus on harmonisation. This project will be of mutual benefit and could potentially boost two-way trade and investment between Australia and New Caledonia.
In a first project of its kind, Australia and Singapore are working together with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to strengthen Myanmar’s capacity to participate in national and international standards development. Building and construction standards were identified as a key focus area. The goal is to enhance trade and economic benefits for Myanmar and the region through setting up business-friendly standardisation infrastructure based on international systems.
Work is ongoing at the ISO and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) on fire-related international standards. The ISO/Technical Committee 92 on Fire Safety has been active since 1958. ISO/TC 92 works on standardization of the methods of assessing fire hazards and fire risk to life and to property; the contribution of design, materials and building components to fire safety; and methods of mitigating fire hazards.
ISO/TC 92 is currently working on revising ISO 13943 Fire safety – Vocabulary, which was last published in 2008. This international standard provides a harmonised set of definitions and terminology for all fire safety standards by the ISO and IEC.
Joining 33 other participating countries and 35 ‘observing’ countries, Australia is proudly represented on ISO/TC 92 through Standards Australia’s national committee of fire safety experts, FP-018. The Technical Committee FP-018 is one of our 15 technical committees and 35 working groups on comprising nearly 340 professionals and experts from the fire safety sector.
Standards Australia will continue to work with stakeholders to contribute to the national and international conversation on fire safety. And while it is an important conversation to have, it is ultimately the follow-up actions that will matter the most.
About Standards Australia
Founded in 1922, Standards Australia is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, recognised by the Commonwealth Government as the peak non-government Standards development body in Australia. It is charged by the Commonwealth Government to meet Australia’s need for contemporary, internationally-aligned Standards and related services. The work of Standards Australia enhances the nation’s economic efficiency, international competitiveness and contributes to community demand for a safe and sustainable environment.
For further information, go to www.standards.org.au