Fire safety for strata owners

Fire safety in strata

Fire safety is a core responsibility of owners corporations and strata committees. It is not simply a matter of compliance with regulations. It is one area where a “she’ll be right” attitude or “near enough is good enough” can be a fatal error. As a recent fire in Rome illustrated, one point of failure – a window in a fire escape – compounded other high-risk factors such as scaffolding and combustible cladding with deadly consequences.

NSW Fire and Rescue Service (FRNSW) are called out to residential strata fires of one form or another daily. Thankfully, the existing passive and active fire suppression and safety measures have usually done their job. But they also see vulnerabilities where things could have turned out very differently.

Regulations are being progressively tightened to overcome a history of neglect and a lax approach to compliance. It is a key focus of the NSW Building Commissioner’s mission to raise standards in residential apartments with fire safety identified as one of the primary areas where defects are found.

These are some of the key concepts and measures that strata committees and owner’s corporations need to embrace for the safety of everyone in your strata community.

Fire safety certificate

The building owner or their representative provides a fire safety certificate upon the completion of new construction work. This certificate attests that a qualified professional has correctly installed, inspected, and ensured that measures specified in the fire safety schedule meet the required minimum performance standard.

These typically include:

  • Automatic fire detection and alarm systems
  • Automatic fire suppression systems, such as sprinkler systems
  • Emergency lighting and exit signs
  • Fire hose reels, fire hydrants and portable fire extinguishers
  • Fire doors and mechanical air-handling systems
  • Lightweight fire-resistant construction materials

Fire safety statements

Legal documents issued by or on behalf of a building’s owner(s) to confirm that an accredited fire safety practitioner has assessed, inspected, and confirmed each measure continues to perform to the standard listed on the fire safety schedule.

Two main types of fire safety statements are:

Annual Fire Safety Statements: Issued annually by a council, registered certifier, or another authorised consent authority and cover a schedule of all essential fire safety measures applicable to the building. The statement confirm that an accredited fire safety practitioner has assessed, inspected, and confirmed each measure continues to perform to the standard listed on the fire safety schedule.

Supplementary Fire Safety Statements: Issued more frequently, as dictated by the fire safety schedule, for any critical fire safety measures to provide ongoing assurance that essential measures are functioning as required.

The significance of these measures cannot be overstated. Fines of up to $4,000 per week which can be issued for not providing AFSS information to Council on time.

Insurance implications of non-compliance

Compliance with fire safety measures is crucial for insurance. A building’s adherence to the Fire Safety Schedule ensures safety and affects insurance premiums. Non-compliance can lead to higher premiums, refusal of insurance renewals, or even cancellation of policies in negligence cases.

Fire safety order

A fire order is a mandatory government directive in cases where buildings, particularly those over 40 years old, lack adequate fire safety equipment. They specify the steps to be taken to reduce the risk of fires that could otherwise result in loss of life and property damage. In response to a fire order, property owners are legally obliged to carry out the upgrades.

They are usually issued by the local council. Fire and Rescue NSW also has the power to issue fire orders. These can include Emergency Orders, requiring swift action to mitigate fire risk or face court proceedings.

Most councils will allow a degree of negotiation with fire orders in recognition that all buildings are different and that it will take time and money to achieve the desired standard. They will help you determine how to prioritise works that have the greatest impact on safety. Examples include heritage residential buildings with only one open stair well, where fire orders sought duplicate fire stairs and hydrants within them. Councils and FRNSW have permitted negotiated outcomes that consider the constraints of the building in question.

FRNSW has a pragmatic technical Information sheet to assist Councils that suggests several concessions to reduce the cost to owners of upgrading fire hydrant coverage to existing buildings.

Accredited practitioners

Accredited practitioners in fire safety are qualified to carry out specific specialised fire safety assessments. In July 2020, the government approved the Fire Protection Association Australia (FPAA) accreditation scheme, making it the first industry accreditation scheme to establish a high standard of expertise and professionalism in fire safety assessments.

Only practitioners accredited by the FPAA are qualified to execute the functions covered by the scheme. Registered certifiers are also authorised to endorse plans and specifications for specific fire safety systems.

The Fire Protection Association (FPAA) has a register of all accredited practitioners. Before engaging one, you must confirm they are accredited to perform the specific works as prescribed under the NSW Building and Development Certifiers Act 2018.

Fire safety reforms

In 2022, a new set of comprehensive fire safety reforms began rolling out based on recommendations from the NSW Building Commission’s office.

From August 1, 2023, Fire Safety Schedules must use a standardised template form to create a consistent and streamlined approach to documenting fire safety measures across different buildings.

Other measures included involving FRNSW in reviewing non-standard fire safety design proposals, establishing an independent checker role for assessing newly installed fire safety measures before occupation and standardising and simplifying documentation and amendment procedures to improve clarity and consistency.

Further reforms in 2025

From February 13, 2025, it will be mandatory for owners to engage accredited individuals to certify recently installed fire safety measures before issuing a fire safety certificate. Fire safety certificates must incorporate details about the accredited individual responsible for the certification.

Owners will also be obligated to maintain and regularly test essential fire safety measures in all building types, excluding single dwellings, to the specific requirements of Australian Standard 1851-2012 for each measure.


How do we find a qualified fire assessor at a reasonable cost?

Strata Plus has established a new specialised compliance team to assist your accredited strata manager in navigating fire safety issues. We will assist with obtaining competitive quotes from suitably qualified and experienced specialists.

It is a false economy to simply look for the cheapest quote if that does not cover all the work needed to inspect and rectify your fire safety measures. Any quote that promises to do the inspection and issue a certificate on the same day is a red flag. If it does not look right, then seek out an independent second opinion.

Do we need to budget for the 2025 changes?

This will depend on the extent to which you already use an appropriately qualified practitioner and your current fire systems are installed and maintained to the relevant Australian standard. A starting point might be obtaining an independent review of your current fire safety schedule and identify those areas where additional maintenance, testing, inspection, or other measures may be needed to comply with those standards – and then budget accordingly.

Do we need a fire warden on each floor like in office buildings?

Residential strata buildings do not typically need a dedicated fire warden, however in some instances fire wardens may be required as part of the approved performance-based design of the building. FRNSW has many helpful tools and tips for home fire safety on them website. If committees or residents have specific concerns about fire safety in their building, they can reach out to FRNSW here.

How can we ensure all units provide access for annual inspections?

Any unit with a faulty alarm or sprinkler system represents a danger to the entire building as these are the primary safety measures to prevent fires spreading.

Strata committees should do everything they can to promote the need for unit access during annual inspections, utilising all available channels including lift and lobby notices and any apps and web portals. Investor owners should ensure their property managers will actively assist in obtaining access to tenanted units. Other absentee owners should ensure a building manager or neighbour can assist with access when required.

Will installing EV charging create a new fire hazard?

Electric vehicles (EVs) and lithium batteries are an emerging area of potential fire risk that authorities worldwide are gradually coming to grips with. Smaller lithium batteries used to recharge electric scooters have already triggered several strata fires and owners corporations in NSW are considering bylaws to regulate or ban charging in units. Buildings installing large-scale batteries as part of any renewable energy system will need to similarly take account of fire risks, with FRNSW preparing specific advice for such projects.

While there is no evidence that EVs create more fire risk than internal combustion engines, it is already well understood that traditional sprinkler or hydrant discharge will not extinguish or control this type of battery fire.

FRNSW is actively working on effective strategies to minimise incidents related to emerging vehicle technologies and to ensure they will be able to respond effectively. Research is ongoing and they encourage owners corporations to familiarise themselves with the latest advice and factor fire safety into the installation of any EV charging facilities in existing buildings.

August 2023

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