Buildings across NSW are routinely declared safe despite being potential fire traps, and contractors are installing poor fire protection out of ignorance or to cut costs, two peak fire bodies have warned.
Fire Protection Association Australia says up to 40 per cent of buildings in NSW do not meet basic fire safety standards. In the last year alone, 500 buildings in the City of Sydney were found to have breached the rules.
The warnings follow two devastating fires that highlighted the need for adequate fire protection: the Quakers Hill nursing home fire which killed 11 elderly residents, prompting laws requiring sprinklers in all nursing homes, and a 2012 apartment blaze in Bankstown which killed 21-year-old student Connie Zhang.
That building had a history of unmet fire orders and an unapproved roof that trapped thick smoke.
Proposed changes to the planning system would require those who design and certify fire protection systems to have proper qualifications. However decades of non-compliance mean thousands of buildings remain a fire risk.
A Building Professionals Board report into building certification, commissioned by Planning Minister Brad Hazzard, cited evidence from Fire Protection Association Australia and National Fire Industry Association NSW, whose members include fire protection contractors, firefighters, insurers and building owners.
The industry warned of a “growing trend” for fire protection systems “being certified even though they are not compliant with relevant standards”. Sometimes a “deliberate decision is made to install a substandard system” to reduce costs. Other problems arise from “ignorance, lack of quality control [or] inadequate testing and inspection”.
Most people who design fire protection measures have no formal qualifications and installers are permitted to “self certify” their work - signing compliance certificates themselves.
NFIA NSW president Gordon Stalley said problems include poor smoke exhaust systems, onsite water storage tanks that are too small, and inadequate water pressure to sprinklers. He said many breaches were merely technical, and non-compliance is more common in smaller projects.
FPAA chief technical officer Matthew Wright estimated up to 40 per cent of buildings in NSW had fire protection issues.
“People can be complacent about it. [But] the problem with fire is its something that occurs rarely but when it does can have catastrophic consequences,” he said.
A City of Sydney spokeswoman said most breaches involved a lack of essential equipment such as smoke alarms, firefighting equipment or fire exits.
Parramatta Council investigated 30 fire safety complaints in the past year, including obstructions to fire doors to building work that did not meet standards.
The report is on public exhibition. Mr Hazzard was unable to comment.