Fire safety in unoccupied buildings: a national snapshot
COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on businesses, and resulted in a mass shutdown of buildings and facilities considered ‘non-essential’. However, many people fail to realise that, regardless of whether a building is occupied or not, building owners must continue to undertake essential maintenance — including fire safety testing. Here is a snapshot of the different state fire compliance requirements across Australia.
Fire safety systems are critical for saving lives and protecting property, which is why there are strict regulations in place to ensure they are always maintained and in good working order. For buildings left unoccupied — such as during the 2020 coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown — it is important that essential upgrades and routine maintenance continue to take place in preparation for a return to normal occupancy.
Building owners are solely responsible for maintaining fire protection systems and equipment, such as fire extinguishers, sprinklers and emergency lights. Irrespective of whether there is an existing lease in place, if a building is not fire compliant, certification may be denied at the landlord’s expense. Managing fire compliance for commercial sites on a national scale can be complex and challenging. There is no standard approach, with each state and territory having different compliance requirements.
Australian Capital Territory
There is currently no annual fire safety compliance requirement for commercial building owners in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT); however, ACT Fire & Rescue has a fire safety guideline outlining maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment (FSG-05).
New South Wales
In New South Wales the maintenance of fire systems and equipment is the direct responsibility of the building owner, who is required to obtain an annual fire safety statement. As of 1 July 2020, the annual fire safety statement must be carried out by an accredited practitioner with a FSA accreditation; a requirement introduced under the Building and Development Certifiers Act and Regulation. If the inspection is not performed properly, the building owner may be held liable and fined. Furthermore, multiple accredited practitioners may be needed depending on the level of expertise required for the systems listed on the site’s occupancy certificate. If a building fails to maintain its fire safety obligations, councils and fire brigades have the authority to deny occupancy.
There is currently no annual fire safety certificate required by building owners in the Northern Territory.
In Queensland, a building occupant must provide an annual occupiers statement to the Commissioner of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES). The statement must verify that the building’s fire safety systems and equipment have been maintained to the relevant building codes. If a building is maintained by the tenant, the tenant is responsible; if the building is occupied by the building owner, the building owner retains responsibility; and if the building is unoccupied then the building owner must sign the occupiers statement.
Building owners in South Australia must complete an annual Form 3 compliance certificate to verify that essential safety provisions, including fire systems and equipment, have been inspected and any defects addressed.
The Building Act 2016 stipulates building owners are responsible for setting up and conducting a maintenance schedule for essential building services. For new buildings or alterations or additions to existing buildings, the building surveyor who issues the Occupancy Permit for the building determines a Maintenance Schedule of prescribed essential services specific to the particular building. They will issue that Schedule to the owner using the Approved Form No. 46 (Maintenance Schedule).
There will be random audits to ensure that maintenance tasks have been undertaken. Records of the work will need to be kept and made available for inspection whenever requested by the Director of Building Control, an authorised officer or by the Tasmanian Fire Service.
Commercial building owners in Victoria are required to prepare an annual essential safety measures report (AESMR) using the AESMR form from the Victorian Building Authority (VBA). This form outlines the building’s essential safety measures (ESM) that need to be adhered to in order to meet the state’s compliance requirements.
There is currently no annual fire safety certificate or essential safety measure requirement in place; however, legislation is currently under review with the aim of introducing an annual statement to be carried out for essential safety measures.
Mass shutdowns of buildings following the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted the importance of businesses making sure that fire systems in buildings continue to be inspected and maintained, ensuring they will operate in accordance with their design intent and purpose.
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