Reprinted from FIRE AUSTRALIA Spring 2015
Findings were handed down on 18 September 2015 by the New South Wales Coroner’s Court in response to the inquest into the tragic fatal Bankstown apartment fire. The findings highlight significant failings in the current regulation of fire protection equipment and systems, specifically regulation surrounding the accreditation of individuals working in the fire protection industry, as well as the requirements for adequate installation of fire sprinkler systems.
The harrowing events of 6 September 2012, in which residents Pingkang (Connie) Zhang and Ginger Jiang were forced to leap from a window on the burning fifth storey of the Euro Terrace apartments, resulted in the death of Ms Zhang.
As the Coroner highlighted, this incident further demonstrates the urgent need for building regulatory reform in New South Wales to address the absence of required qualifications and accreditation of individuals carrying out critical life-saving fire protection work.
FPA Australia strongly backs a specific recommendation to implement a statutory regime for the accreditation and auditing of persons or entities that undertake annual fire safety checks and issue annual fire safety statements pursuant to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000.
In addition, the Coroner has recommended that the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) consider amending the National Construction Code (NCC) to require the installation of fit-for-purpose sprinkler systems in all new Class 2 and 3 buildings (buildings of a shared residential nature). This should be done in conjunction with the possible reform of other fire safety requirements to ensure this significant improvement in public safety is achieved in the most cost-effective manner.
FPA Australia CEO Scott Williams said, “FPA Australia has spent more than a decade talking about the importance of life-saving fire protection equipment and systems and we advocate daily for reform. There have been multiple reports released into these issues and enough is enough. We don’t want to see another report without the government introduction and investment of sweeping reforms and action, which are needed to prevent another death.”
“This type of tragic event always shines a light on the importance of adequate fire protection measures for our community. However, FPA Australia is always saddened when it takes a loss of life before this issue becomes part of the national conversation—one life is one too many,” said Mr Williams.
Before the September 2012 fire, Bankstown City Council issued notices to the building owners about multiple non-compliant fire and life-safety issues, such as missing warning signs, fire doors not shutting correctly and items missing from the fire alarm. However, many of these issues and more were not fixed. Disturbingly, a life was lost and another person left with horrific injuries.
In addition to some other specific requirements, the NCC’s prescriptive provisions stipulate installation of sprinkler protection, among several other significant fire and life-safety systems, when the effective height of a building is more than 25 m. As a result, apartments such as the Euro Terrace building are often deliberately designed and constructed to incorporate as many storeys as possible while ensuring the effective height is kept below 25 m. The potential result is that these types of buildings may be Australia’s most dangerous.
Automatic fire sprinkler systems represent one of the most reliable and effective fire protection systems and have a proven track record over more than 100 years. FPA Australia strongly supports the Coroner’s recommendation that Class 2 and 3 multi-storey residential buildings less than 25 m be fitted with additional mandatory fire protection systems, including sprinklers.
“Had the residential part of the Euro Terrace building been sprinkler protected, we consider it highly likely that the fire would have been controlled or contained and these residents may not have had to make the decision to jump,” said Mr Williams.
Australian jurisdictions must implement a statutory regime for the accreditation and auditing of persons or entities that undertake critical life-saving fire protection work. While this tragic incident occurred in New South Wales, FPA Australia believes the issue is not limited to one state or territory. These findings should serve as a wake-up call to all levels of government throughout Australia to acknowledge that there is a significant life-safety risk to the community from the regulatory absence of accreditation of suitably qualified and experienced individuals.
There must be decisive action to reform requirements for individuals working in life-saving fire protection to prevent future tragedies such as the death of Ms Zhang.
The full Coronial inquest report can be found at www.coroners.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/Zhang%20findings%2018%2009%2015%20FINAL.pdf