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NSW Building Regulation Reforms put Fire Safety in the Spotlight


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The NSW Government has just released the first tranche of reforms to NSW building regulation and certification system, with fire safety being the initial aspect targeted. From October 1, 2017, new requirements will apply for the design, construction, and maintenance of active fire safety systems in both new and existing buildings aside from detached dwellings or outbuildings.

Under the new regulation, a “competent fire safety practitioner” is required to sign off on all plans and specifications for fire safety systems including sprinkler systems, hydrant systems, fire detection and alarm systems, and mechanical air handling systems. The government plans that at some stage, all of these practitioners will also need to be accredited under a co-regulatory arrangement with industry, similar to the one existing for doctors and Certified Practicing Accountants.

"builders will need to ensure that if they have an existing relationship with a company that has been undertaking their fire system design, the company has someone accredited to sign off on the designs"

CEO of the Fire Protection Association, Scott Williams, says this means builders will need to ensure that if they have an existing relationship with a company that has been undertaking their fire system design, the company has someone accredited to sign off on the designs. According to William, if it doesn’t, there is a risk that the building certifier will not accept them.

The endorsed plans and specifications for complex fire systems will also need to be submitted to the certifying authority before the systems are installed.

There are also new requirements for documenting, endorsing and checking fire safety designs developed as part of a Performance Solution under the National Construction Code.

During construction, new critical stage inspections are being brought in that specifically target multi-residential apartments and other sleeping quarters.

Fire and Rescue NSW will also have inspection power for multi-residential buildings.

Fire and Rescue NSW will also have inspection power for multi-residential buildings. Williams says these measures aim to ensure passive fire protection system elements such as fire separation walls, penetrations and seals, fire collars, and fire doors meet the required standards. Especially since many of these things cannot be seen once a building is complete and the paint goes on, he says.

What builders will need to do is ensure they have scheduled in the inspections ahead of time with a competent fire safety practitioner that can also undertake inspection and certification. They will also need to stay in close communication with them.Not doing so could mean either the need to undertake re-work so the inspection can take place, or a need to stop work until it can.

Williams says this is important not only for builders in the major cities but for anyone working in any part of the state.

Another part of the changes is the annual assessment of the ongoing performance of active fire systems also needs to be undertaken by an endorsed or accredited fire safety practitioner. The assessment is an obligation put on building owners, and its results have to to be submitted to the local council or other regulatory authority. Neglecting it can mean hefty fines.

This may affect builders in the booming sector of repurposing, refurbishing, altering, and renovating buildings.

“There is an enormous amount of work out there repurposing buildings,” Williams says.

When it comes to such projects, a new alarm or detection system are likely to be installed, or changes made to the air handling systems.

However, once the regulations come into effect, any designs for altered systems will need to be signed off by a competent practitioner before they are installed. The Fire Safety Schedule also needs to be updated. Failing to do so means that when the time comes for the owner to get the annual inspection done, the Fire Safety Schedule for the systems will not match what is actually in place and the assessment can’t take place. The owner will then be looking to the builder to fix the problem.

Williams says builders will, therefore, need to make sure that their certifier is aware the Schedule is appropriately updated as part of the documentation for work in existing buildings.

Currently, the government has not released details of transitional arrangements, which makes the reform problematic.

“It’s chicken and egg stuff,” Williams says.

There is no scheme in place that is approved by the government for accrediting fire safety practitioners, which means it is very much a “watching brief” for builders.

“There is not a whole lot to worry about now, but builders need to monitor the space closely,” Williams says. “They will have to be careful they are not caught out.”

The FPA has a national scheme it developed that accredits practitioners across sprinkler installation, hydrant systems and fire and smoke detection systems, but not mechanical air handling systems.It will be applying to the state government for endorsement as a provider of accreditation as well as looking to partner with industry bodies in the mechanical services sector to develop the units of competency for air handling.

“It is not cheap to develop units of competency,” Williams says.“Our organisation spent close to a million dollars setting up our accreditation schemes.”

Until a formally endorsed accreditation scheme exists, Williams believes there will be a mean for experienced fire safety practitioners to be recognised and approved to undertake the required design sign-off and inspections.

Until a formally endorsed accreditation scheme exists, Williams believes there will be a mean for experienced fire safety practitioners to be recognised and approved to undertake the required design sign-off and inspections.

While there are a “few gaps” in the initial tranche of reforms and aspects of them are a “work in progress”, Williams says the NSW state government is still showing leadership.

“I think the New South Wales model is a leading model,” he says.“It’s just going to take some time, and there will be some teething problems and some issues regarding the depth of the [fire protection] industry and its ability to respond.”

He hopes the other states and territories will follow the example.

"We welcome this important step, which is the result of a whole-of-government response to ensure community confidence in the fire safety of the state's buildings,” Williams says.“We believe these once-in-a-generation reforms represent a much-needed cultural shift for the industry, but most importantly will improve the life safety and improve community confidence in all NSW buildings."

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