Fire safety consequences grow as more high-rises built in Canberra

The risk of a catastrophic fire is growing as more high-rises are built in Canberra, according to an internationally acclaimed expert, who has warned sloppy commissioning and maintenance of fire prevention systems could put lives at risk.

Dr Jonathan Barnett, who chairs Engineers Australia's Society of Fire Safety, has decades of experience in fire safety engineering, which include investigating the events of the September 11 terror attacks in the US.

An increasing number of high-rises are being built in Canberra. Photo: Graham Tidy

An increasing number of high-rises are being built in Canberra. Photo: Graham Tidy

He said in his experience, where a building was "a little dodgy, one way or another", often complex things like fire safety systems hadn't been properly commissioned or maintained.

But authorities in the ACT are still only required to inspect fire prevention systems in new buildings with a floor space greater than 500 square metres, and systems in existing buildings if renovations cover more than half of the floor space.

Dr Barnett said because buildings more than 25 metres tall were legally required to have enhanced fire prevention systems installed, high-rises with properly commissioned and maintained systems were about the safest buildings you could be inside during a fire.

Buildings of that height are considered high-rise and therefore require additional fire prevention systems including sprinklers, stair pressurisation and a minimum of two sets of fire exit stairs.

But Dr Barnett said if these systems were not installed or maintained properly, the risk was growing as an increasing number of high-rises were being built.

"The consequence of not doing proper maintenance in a three- or four-storey building ... Well, it's only three or four storeys," he said.

"We can still rescue people with ladders and there aren't that many people [inside].

"When you get to a taller building, the consequences are the brigade can’t fight the fire, can’t rescue you with a ladder. There are many more people at risk.

"Therefore, the consequence of sloppy commissioning of systems and improper maintenance is much, much higher."

Despite this, fire safety inspections must only be carried out in the ACT in new buildings with a floor space greater than 500 square metres, or if renovations covering more than half of the floor space have been carried out.

ACT Fire and Rescue is responsible for such checks, and chief officer Mark Brown said the service had carried out 465 inspections in 2018, up from 374 the previous year.

"ACT Fire and Rescue officers also undertake post-occupancy inspections of buildings where fire safety issues have been identified such as blocked fire doors, compromised exit pathways or any other kind of obstruction that compromises fire safety or wherever ACT Fire and Rescue has been alerted to a safety or building compliance matter," Mr Brown said.

Fire inspection laws differ across Australian jurisdictions and the Fire Protection Association has long called for more regular inspections of fire prevention systems to bring the ACT into line with laws in other Australian jurisdictions.

Under ACT legislation, occupiers are required to maintain fire appliances to "a reasonable standard", but in jurisdictions like NSW and Victoria regular inspections are mandatory in pre-existing buildings.

Dr Barnett said as buildings got taller, the construction industry needed to be mindful of the heightened risk.

"If you’ve got people who are used to designing, installing, commissioning and maintaining systems where the consequence of a failure is small, they tend to say, ‘Oh, she’ll be right, mate’," he said.

"The reality is you can’t say that when you end up with a bigger population in a tall building.

"There’s a need for a change in mindset."

An ACT Legislative Assembly committee conducting an inquiry into building quality in the territory has received dozens of submissions detailing shoddy construction work, building delays and wide-ranging concerns about a lack of regulation and oversight of the construction industry.

Industry experts told The Canberra Times last month the overwhelming majority of high-rise apartment buildings in Canberra were likely to have major defects, with one warning the territory's construction industry had reached "crisis point".

This did not bode well for fire safety, according to Dr Barnett.

"My experience is where a building is a little dodgy, one way or another, during construction for example, you often find that complex systems have not been properly commissioned, and they’re not properly maintained," he said.

While building quality is in the spotlight in the ACT, the number of building-related complaints dropped in the second half of 2018.

Access Canberra received 265 building-related complaints from July 31 to December 31, down from 391 in the first six months of the year.