Two recent incidents have brought renewed attention to home fire safety. In Macksville, a town in the mid-north coast of New South Wales, a fire broke out in a residential garage, quickly spreading to (and gutting) the whole house. The family, fortunately, escaped and only possessions were lost. In Werribee, in south-west Melbourne, another family was not as lucky, losing four children under the age of 10 when their house went up in flames. In that case, both parents survived the disaster with injuries, but only their 8-year-old son survived the fire.
While such incidents are not daily events, they do occur at a concerning rate; however, the focus of the media and the population tends to be on bushfires rather than house fires. To some degree this is understandable, because in Australia, everyone is aware of bushfires. We have all seen numerous images of the walls of flames, the burnt-out shells of buildings, and scenes of people and animals coping with the aftermath. Such disasters are part of the Australian psyche, of the individual stoically facing catastrophe and refusing to be beaten by it.
Of course, bushfires cause considerable damage to homes and communities, and major blazes have notable social and economic ramifications. However, from a life-safety perspective, residential fires have proven to be a far more deadly, but far less obvious, risk.
Statistics show that, across Australia, while there is an average of eight bushfire deaths each year, this is a fraction of those from residential fires, which average 64 per year, or more than one death every week.
These incidents have a significant and long-lasting impact upon individuals, families, communities, firefighters and other emergency services workers, yet they are overwhelmingly preventable.
As a key partner in the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Australia (HFSCA), along with AFAC, the National Council for fire and emergency services, FPA Australia is conscious of the importance of improving fire safety in the home.
Put simply, fires in homes need to be controlled for long enough that occupants can escape safely and the fire brigade can attend. This is no small feat – with modern synthetic furniture and furnishings, a fire can escalate rapidly and reach flashover within 3 minutes.
Unfortunately, even in metropolitan areas it takes around 7–8 minutes for a fire brigade to reach a house, and longer before they can start fighting the fire, so the chances of saving the property are small.
Three minutes to flashover also significantly reduces the ability of occupants to escape – if residents are sleeping when the fire breaks out and don’t hear an alarm, or if they are overcome by toxic fumes, or the fire gets out of control too quickly, they are unlikely to survive.
To give them a fighting chance, the HFSCA has been developing cost-neutral sprinkler solutions for low-rise residential buildings, in line with recommendations coming from various Coronial inquiries into previous disasters.
This work has seen the creation of two designs FPAA 101D, which draws from drinking water, and FPAA 101H, which works off the hydrant system, and these have been accepted into the National Construction Code as a mandatory requirement for buildings above four storeys and under 25m in effective height.
But that was only the first step – we are working to develop the established 101D sprinkler specification into a design for consideration in for all new residential buildings, including stand-alone houses.
This may seem extreme, as Australians aren’t used to sprinklers in houses, but in a new building it can be achieved at minimal cost to the homeowner, and the systems are designed not to require regular testing, unlike commercial systems.
Our goal is to deliver safer homes, so that lives are no longer ruined by residential fires, and we are educating the industry, consumers and decision-makers to achieve this.
Too many deaths occur from residential fires, but the fire protection industry and fire authorities are working closely to ensure that future fatalities can be prevented.
For more information, go to fpaa.com.au