Fire Australia 2021: Day One Program Highlights

Posted on : Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The first day of Fire Australia 2021 was a welcome return to the largest fire protection conference and tradeshow in the Southern Hemisphere. 


Our program was packed with informative and interesting speakers discussing topics of relevance to fire protection practitioners. 



Session 1...


... was opened by President Bill Lea, who welcomed delegates to Fire Australia 2021.  He observed that the population is aging, which will create a lot of competition for potential candidates, and challenged the audience to look to the future: "What do we do as an industry to make ourselves and industry of choice? What are we going to do to attract the best and brightest?"  


He was followed by a recorded address by the Minister for Better Regulation, the Hon. Kevin Anderson MP, who was unable to be there in person, but was keen to provide words of encouragement to the industry. The Minister expressed support for the fire sector, saying that it was pleasing to see that the industry is driving change. He said that the NSW Government knows how important the industry is as an employer and a driver of our economy, and the Minister's door is always open to representations from FPA Australia.  



After the Minister came two presentations on fire safety and construction reform in New South Wales: 


Michael Lambert of the Lambert Report fame, who chairs the NSW Fire Safety Reform Steering Committee, discussed the steps the Committee was taking to improve fire safety in that state and what this will mean for practitioners. He bemoaned any race to the bottom for the sector, saying: "We don't want to have cowboys in our industry. We want to have an industry that is fully professional."  


Michael discussed the five deliverables of his steering committee: 


  1. a building manual for all commercial buildings, which will start with the fire safety component of the buildings;  
  2. a landscape for the fire protection industry - the information required at each stage of building, the role of the fire safety engineer, and accreditation for all fire practitioners; 
  3. fire safety documents and regulatory roles, with a particular focus on templates for fire safety schedules, fire safety certificates, and annual fire safety statements; 
  4. determining the role of councils and FRNSW in relation to the above documents; and 
  5. assessing the role of FRNSW in relation to performance solutions.  


Finally, delegates heard from Matthew Press, Director of the Office of the Building Commissioner of NSW.  He was representing Commissioner David Chandler and discussed what the Office has learnt over recent months about the current quality of construction and fire safety. Matt advised that the Government is looking to return confidence to the system: "We want to make NSW the home of trustworthy buildings".  




Policy Stream


The Policy Stream focused on cladding and building safety issues, regulation, competency, and legal liability. 


First up was an analysis by Greg Campbell and Simone Pappas  of Pinsent Masons Lawyers on the recent Victorian Appeals Court ruling on the Lacrosse building fire.  They explained the rationale for the decision and how it potentially affects fire protection practitioners.  Their advice was to deliver what you commit to in the consultancy agreement and, if in doubt as to whether something complies, seek the advice of others.  


Ivan Donaldson, former Executive Director of the Australian Building Codes Board was next up.  He went into the history of building regulations, and what has been driving recent changes to the National Construction Code and state and territory regulations.  He argued that the NCC still has some issues, and we need to reimagine building regulations from a national perspective.  


After lunch, Shergold-Weir report co-author Bronwyn Weir  shared her insights into how organisations and governments could work together to improve practitioner competency.  She commented on the potential role of industry in education, accreditation, and licensing, and said that associations need to start moving away from thinking of themselves as a club to position themselves as professional organisations. 


She said that, with a move towards professional standards schemes, industry associations will eventually move into:  


  • delivering CPD and monitoring compliance; 
  • accrediting and assessing practitioners; 
  • reporting on risk management;  
  • insurance, claims, and business monitoring; 
  • complaints management and discipline activities
  • auditing members annually; and 
  • annual reporting.  


Greg Campbell came back in the session before the tea break to give more legal analysis, advising practitioners on the steps they needed to do to protect themselves and their reputations.  He said that practitioners owed a duty of care to owners - whether they had a direct relationship or were subsequent purchasers:  "There's an expectation that we'll carry out a role with reasonable care and skill."    In addition, he suggested that practitioners should fully understand their contracts and the scope of services.  


Just after the break, we heard from Quentin de Hults, Executive Chair of the Modern Building Alliance, beaming in from Belgium to discuss fire safety in tall buildings in Europe.  Quentin discussed the 7-layers of fire safety in buildings used in Europe, being:  1. prevention; 2. detection; 3. early suppression; 4. evacuation; 5. compartmentation; 6. structural safety; and 7. fire fighting.  This is implemented into national building codes and regulations through building requirements, essential installations, and organisation requirements (planning, construction, and maintenance/inspection), and backed by strong enforcement and EU standards.   


Quentin also discussed how things are changing with cladding in Europe, so that cladding fires witnessed over the last decade are not repeated.   


For the last session of the day, we heard from Matthew Wright and Chris Miles from UL International who commented on the outcomes of the Grenfell Tower disaster and what impact they have had on local and international practitioners.  They drew close parallels between government policies in the UK and Australia.  


Matthew said that, while Grenfell provided stimulus for governments to review current arrangements and to develop the Building Confidence  report, implementing it has been the hardest part to achieve. 


Chris said that increased competence, improved testing and certification of products, and better enforcement are necessary reforms in any system to deliver better safety and create trust.  



Technical Stream


The Technical Stream looked at fire safety engineering, the use of headsets, compliance with Part 9 of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000, and an update on the national implementation of the Shergold-Weir Report. 


It started with some introspection from Nate Lobel  from Performance Based Consulting and Sarnia Rusbridge  from Holmes Fire about the role of fire safety engineering and whether it's managed to stay up to date with construction practices.  They observed that quantification for the NCC is not limited to fire safety, but will be extended to cover everything eventually:  The lesson is:  "Don't do the minimum, do what's most appropriate." 


Dale Spurway-Humphries  from Lucid Consulting Australia discussed issues with people working with headsets not realising that a fire may have broken out.  He stressed the importance of occupants being able to identify fire alarms visually where they may be able to hear them audibly and said that "uncontrolled personal headset use within office environments increases the risk of missing initial fire alarm."


Kingsley Lunt, from Hendry, presented two sessions on the fire provisions within the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000.   He said that, while there has been some divergence between the Regulation, the Building Code of Australia, and industry practice, there is some work going on behind the scenes to bring them into closer alignment.  


Returning to engineering, Keith Thomas  from Thomas Management Design outlined the role that engineers should play in building construction, and where improvements are needed.  He observed that engineers should not be operating in isolation and recommends that those who design for fire safety should ensure they have third-party reviews of their designs. 


Lastly, Matthew McDonald, from the Australian Building Codes Board, reported on his work leading the implementation of the Building Confidence  Report in each state and territory.  He advised that governments are making varying degrees of progress on the reforms, and that the ABCB is helping to ensure that there is greater national consistency in their rollout:  "consistency in processes will reduce defects and return confidence to the industry."



Bushfire Stream


 The third stream - the Bushfire Stream- covered a variety of issues from building design, to the use of technology, to case studies and lessons learnt. 


Julie de Jong, from H&H Architects, and Kathryn Kinnear, from Biodiverse Solutions, discussed the issues that practitioners need to consider in the design and construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas.  They highlighted some of the key risks, and suggested ways to overcome them.  Kathryn advised that "most fire and structural loss is due to embers".  


Julie said that "building to last" and "designing for resilience" is necessary to protect the population, because "structure is so important for us to take refuge in".  


Chad McLean from Warringtonfire stepped in to discuss risk mitigation with passive fire protection products using product certification.  He said that product certification in the passive fire industry ensures that you are using fit-for-purpose products and gives you confidence and certainty in their quality and performance.  


Graeme Thom, formerly of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and now GT & Associates, expressed frustration about the damage and destruction caused by bushfires in Australia.  He outlined four projects that would contribute to his goal to: "eliminate the onset impact and consequences of uncontrolled fire."


FPA Australia's Dr Maria Kornakova examined the Wye River and Separation Creek Fires of December, 2015.  While there was no loss of life from these fires, they caused significant financial impact, and have suggested a lot of improvements to the design of regional communities.  She reflected that practitioners can "actively use urban design to reduce bushfire risks." 


A similar examination was made by Leah Bertholini  of the SA Country Fire Service about the Kangaroo Island bushfires that broke out at the start of 2020.  These fires were the largest in the Island's history and were catastrophic for the local community.  Leah observed that the CFS has been learning from the incident:  the independent review into the KI bushfires showed that resources were hampered and "everyone did the best they could with what they had." 


In a change of direction, the last presentation of the stream looked at technology and its use for fighting bushfires.  Angus Dorney  of Kablamo described some of the innovations that are being picked up by various fire brigades.  He said that "we need to move faster to address current deficiencies and capture future opportunities by using  data  and  AI  in predicting, managing, and preventing  bushfires."  



The streams finished at 5pm, and delegates headed back to the Expo Hall for the  welcome cocktails.