Alert issued for Vic construction sector ahead of fire safety changes

Thursday, 12 May, 2022

Alert issued for Vic construction sector ahead of fire safety changes

Fire safety in the construction industry is a hot button issue, with significant legislative changes due to come into effect later this year.

John Rakic, Owner of Trafalgar Fire, said many systems being sold and installed were fire tested over 30 years ago and do not provide the requisite protection that modern buildings deserve.

“These are probably the most significant changes to passive fire protection in the last 50 years and will have a monumental and positive impact,” Rakic said.

What is the timeline?

The original deadline for the changes in the National Construction Code 2019 (NCC2019) was 1 May, 2022; however, a recent update has provided the industry with a few extra months to prepare, with COVID-19 delaying the publication and adoption of NCC2022 until 1 September, 2022. Rakic said that although the changes have been delayed slightly, it is critical that developers, buildings and trades are aware and prepared.

“Incredibly, prior to the new standards, any new class 2 buildings, such as high-rise apartment buildings, could use test reports from the 1950s for passive fire protection compliance. There was no motivation for manufacturers to retest systems to more onerous standards, which stopped product innovation. Only the lucky few who had access to older fire testing could dominate the marketplace on price, not efficacy of systems being offered,” Rakic said.

Passive fire protection exists to contain or slow down the spread of fire by compartmentalising a building into fire zones using fire-rated walls, shafts, floors, ceilings, doors and service penetrations. Service penetrations include duct work, electrical and data cabling, plumbing and air conditioning pipes. In the event of a fire, passive fire protection is designed to limit the spread of fire to one fire compartment, allowing people to escape safely from adjacent fire compartments and enabling firefighters to get into a building to put out a fire and contain it to only the fire-affected compartment. “It is about saving lives first and protecting property second,” Rakic said.

The National Construction Code

In Australia, all construction is governed by the National Construction Code (NCC), formerly the Building Code of Australia, which is updated every three years and adopted by the various states and territories on 1 May of each three-year cycle.

“We estimate that 60–70% of construction is currently being built to NCC2019 which means that on September 1, these buildings should incorporate systems with a Fire Resistance Level (FRL) complying with the fire testing to AS1530 Part 4 – 2014, not older versions like 1997 or 2005, for example,” Rakic said.

Larger Tier One builders have been specifying and using systems with the latest fire test requirements; to prepare for the changes, Trafalgar Fire has fire tested its products to determine if they are up to date and has launched a free knowledge centre for the industry. Rakic said that the company has spent over $3 million getting ready for these changes, with the company’s systems undergoing rigorous new fire testing to meet or exceed current Australian standards. “We had to be ready now as buildings being built under NCC2019 effectively require this if they do not finish before September 1, 2022,” he said.

The changes to NCC2019 were made clear to industry on 1 May, 2019, providing a little more than three years for manufacturers to re-fire test if required to the latest versions of AS1530, whether for non-combustibility or for passive fire protection fire ratings, known as FRLs. This means that all products requiring a fire rating, from 1 September, 2022, must be fire tested to the latest Australian fire test standards. Previously, there was a grandfathering clause that allowed old fire test reports and data to be used for new buildings, but this will stop from 1 September, 2022, meaning unaware builders or developers may stop being compliant in the middle of a project unless they start using systems fire tested correctly to the new requirements.

“Many builders used to handball compliance to the various trades, which is ineffective because passive fire protection needs to be looked at as a whole system or a matrix. It was impractical for certifiers or building surveyors to check every penetration on site and they were having to accept trade-specific certification for compliance. This would be in the form of a certificate saying all penetrations were installed correctly with little detail of why or how provided from the trades. This led to some poor and non-compliant installations being approved. The builders just didn’t want to know as their contracts would put the certification onus on the trades,” Rakic said.

Rakic said that this led to serious problems that cost strata bodies and building owners a lot of money to fix. According to Rakic, some builders would avoid liability by winding up their company, leaving the building owners or strata bodies to pay the bills. The increased focus on passive fire protection through mandated inspections, legislative change, and dedicated building commissioners, such as in NSW, will improve the as-built environment for Australians. “There is now more impetus for buildings to be designed in smarter and safer ways and we are finding that people are seeking versatile and compliant solutions with our local Australian fire regulations. Ultimately it will lead to better and safer buildings. Hopefully it will prevent avoidable tragedies,” he said.

Image credit: © Khrutmuang

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