The recent Neo 200 apartment fire in Melbourne highlights that the existing installations of combustible façades and the ongoing design of buildings for fire safety are still major concerns across Australia. Given alarming similarity of the Neo 200 fire, the earlier Lacrosse Building fire in Melbourne, the Grenfell Tower fire in London and other similar global fires, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the whole performance-based regulatory regime is completely broken and that the sector is producing few high-quality buildings.
On the other hand, the demonstration of the full design flexibility, aesthetics, functionality and safety afforded by the performance-based Building Code of Australia is displayed through buildings and structures such as Eureka Tower, Barangaroo, 1 Bligh Street, Adelaide Cricket Ground New Stand, and the Macquarie Bank building in Sydney.
Nevertheless, clearly problems continue to emerge in relation to design, choice of materials, façade design, poor installation, lack of proper inspections and other aspects which shake the confidence of buildings owners and occupants.
While Governments and the Building Ministers Forum continue to struggle to find a way to respond to the façade issues and the Shergold/Weir report into building regulation, the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering leading an industry-initiated effort to define the required performance of fire safety engineers (FSEs) and to lift practice to full and proper professionalisation.
The Warren Centre project is focused on the role, regulation, competence, education and accreditation of fire safety engineers. It recognises that while fire safety engineers take the lead on developing fire safety strategies and fire safety designs of buildings, they are but one of the players in the whole design, construction and maintenance life cycle of buildings.
The Warren Centre is therefore extremely pleased to have the support of organisations such the Fire Protection Association Australia for the project. Both organisations appreciate that it takes a range of practitioners working together to achieve good quality buildings and achieve the required level of fire safety. The work of fire safety engineers needs to be carefully linked to the practices of many others such sprinkler system designers, fire protection installation contractors and companies maintaining systems to AS 1851 for successful fire safety. It is also recognised that the FPA Australia through its Fire Protection Accreditation Scheme (FPAS) is already providing a strong lead on accreditation for many industry practitioners that can fit neatly alongside professional fire safety engineers accreditation.
The Warren Centre project is based around three research themes:
- The State of FSE Regulation, Control and Accreditation in Australia
- The State and Future Role of Performance-Based FSE in Australia
- The Effective Professionalisation of FSEs.
In turn, these three parts of the research are divided in eight research tasks, of which three have now been completed, namely:
- Task 1.1, the ‘Regulation Report’, on the current state of FSE regulation, control and accreditation in Australia, with differences and deficiencies identified. This task was undertaken by Stephen Kip and Michael Wynn-Jones
- Task 3.1.1, the ‘Education Report’, on the current status of education, training and stated competencies for FSEs, undertaken by a team from University of Queensland and Prof Jose Torero (UCL London).
- Task 2.2, the ‘Methods Report’, a study of the benefits of an updated International Fire Engineering Guidelines (IFEG), the new Fire Safety Verification Method (FSVM) and the Society for Fire Safety (SFS) and other Practice Notes, undertaken by the University of Queensland team with Prof Torero (completion scheduled March 2019).
The Regulation Report
The Task 1.1 ‘Regulation Report’ authored by Kip and Wynn-Jones has highlighted the total inconsistency between the states and territories in relation to regulation and accreditation of fire safety engineers.
This inconsistency is illustrated in the key diagram from the report which is reproduced below.
This table shows that while Queensland and Tasmania license fire safety engineers, such that it is illegal to practice without a licence in those jurisdictions, the other states and territories have no controls whatsoever or have registration schemes which do not prevent people practicing fire safety engineering provided they do not claim to be registered or do not call themselves fire safety engineers.
Only in NSW is it mandatory for fire safety engineers to undertake construction site inspections, and only in the three states of Victoria, Queensland and NSW are there mandatory requirements to consult with the local Fire Brigade on certain matters, although in some jurisdictions consultation is undertaken on a voluntary basis.
Given the lack of controls over the practice of fire safety engineering in a number of states and territories, Kip and Wynn-Jones suggest that “it follows that there is lack of audit and enforcement of fire safety engineers and their performance”.
The task 1.1 Regulation Report highlights that “these findings of national inconsistency and widespread lack of controls over fire safety engineering practice appear to discourage the use of performance-based fire safety engineering and threaten the likelihood of sound fire safety outcomes for the Australian community.”
The authors recommend “the development of a national model set of regulatory controls for fire safety engineering, including for design fire safety engineers, peer reviewers, certifiers approving ‘Performance Solutions’ and fire brigade officials reviewing designs”. They argue that these national regulatory controls need ”to be developed and implemented across all Australian jurisdictions” and be based on “best practice and achieve national consistency”.
The Education Report
This report starts with the proposition that the role of fire safety engineers “must be fulfilled by individuals who collectively possess the competencies, comprising professional attributes, skills and knowledge, required to demonstrate that a societally acceptable level of safety has been obtained.”
This research team led by Dr David Lange from University of Queensland and Professor Jose Torero from University College London found:
- Competencies for fire safety engineers in Australia have not been updated in the past 30 years, and are almost all are based on simple statements of knowledge required without reference to higher skills and attributes of learning.
- In relation to fire safety education in Australia, “there is some consistency in model curricula which exist when describing the knowledge required of a fire safety engineer. Nevertheless, these curricula have remained largely unchanged over the past 30 years while the challenges which fire safety professionals face have continued to evolve.”
- Of the three major fire safety engineering courses taught in Australia, only the BEng/MEng course at the University of Queensland is accredited by Engineers Australia.
This Education Report concludes with a call to action to review the competencies required of a fire safety professional, the educational and accreditation process through which competence is attained and acknowledged, and the regulatory environment in which a true fire safety engineering professional should work.
The verification report
The team from the University of Queensland have also examined the utility, benefits and risks associated with three different types of documents available for fire safety engineers to use to assist in verification of fire safety designs for buildings.
These documents were as follows:
- The Fire Safety Verification Method (FSVM) developed by ABCB and now incorporated in the NCC for 2019
- The International Fire Engineering Guidelines (IFEG)
- Practice Notes, including those issued by the Society of Fire Safety (Engineers Australia)
They started by defining very carefully the difference between the design process and development of a building fire safety strategy, which is a balance of the drivers and constraints, for any project, and the separate verification of the design against the Performance Requirements of the BCA (NCC)
Their report highlights the fact that the Fire Safety Verification Method (FSVM) crosses over the boundary between a design or process document and a verification method. It thus has the potential to influence design outcomes and safety in an unsatisfactory manner. The FSVM makes reference to establishing equivalence to the prescriptive of DTS provisions of the BCA, and yet these DTS provisions are not defined in a way that makes comparison possible.
It is recognised that the IFEG is significantly out of date and is only a fire safety engineering process document and for guidance only. Similarly, Practice Notes are non-mandatory and provide specific guidance to practitioners.
These reports show that Australia has much work to complete on fire safety regulation, competence and education as well as establishing up to date and proper guidance documents necessary to lift fire safety engineering to a full and proper profession.
For more information, go to www.info.thewarrencentre.org.au/firesafety/