Fire risks in Australian buildings go beyond cladding: Jonathan Barnett

Fire risks in Australian buildings go beyond cladding: Jonathan Barnett
Fire risks in Australian buildings go beyond cladding: Jonathan Barnett

GUEST OBSERVATION

A fire safety expert is warning of the risk of a catastrophic apartment fire in Australia because of flammable cladding and inadequate safety systems, the same causes as the London Grenfell Towers fire disaster.

In the wake of the fire in the Neo 200 apartment building in Melbourne, Professor Jonathan Barnett warns that a catastrophic fire event in Australia “is a matter of when, not if”.

“It’s scary,” says fire safety expert Barnett, Managing Director of Basic Expert Pty Ltd, who has a specialty in the analytical modelling of fire dynamics, smoke movement and occupant egress.

When the terrible images of the Grenfell Tower fire in London were beamed around the world in 2017, the horrifying loss of life caused shock and outrage.

The images also prompted questions about whether highly-flammable aluminium cladding used for the tower’s exterior was also being used by construction industries in other parts of the world, and kickstarted extensive rectification efforts to remove the cladding in Australia and other countries.

At issue is the use of flammable aluminium composite cladding, which is made from two skins of aluminium with a fibrous polyethylene material in the middle.

The added danger from inadequate fire safety system maintenance has increased the urgency of the need to replace the cladding in as many as 12,000 apartment buildings in Australia.

It’s an issue Westpac would like to see resolved. “We are aware of the issues around cladding and take these very seriously,” says Peter Spiller, National Head of Property Risk at Westpac, who has been working on the cladding problem in the wake of the Grenfell fire and spoke at a recent industry conference on the issue.

“Transparency and clarity will give home owners and residents greater peace of mind, so we are very supportive of the property sector, government, and banks working together to solve this issue as quickly as possible.”

Many safety issues

For Barnett, the extent of the danger in Australia became apparent when Basic Expert inspected the Neo 200 building in the wake of the February fire and discovered a large number of serious safety failings.

The fire in the 41-storey building in Melbourne’s Spencer Street most likely began when a resident threw a cigarette butt and it landed in a cardboard box on a lower balcony and then spread to that apartment’s cladding. Barnett notes that just 1.5 per cent of the Neo building’s upper level external walls are covered in cladding, but in the six minutes it took for the fire brigade to arrive and get upstairs, the fire had spread to five floors.

While Barnett describes that incident as “pretty minor”, the maintenance failings had rendered the building vulnerable to a much bigger fire.

The batteries in the fire indicator panel (FIP), which controls fire alarms through the building, had been flat for about four years and were leaking acid. There were numerous maintenance issues in the sprinkler pump room, which could have led to a compromised sprinkler and internal hydrant system.

Further, each apartment had a smoke detector, which was meant to be connected to the building’s central alarm system. But when the alarms were replaced after 10 years, most of the replacements were not compatible with the alarm system – meaning residents in these apartments wouldn’t receive alerts about a building fire, and a fire in their apartments wouldn’t trigger the central alarm system.

The overpressure switches – which ensure the water pressure passing through a building’s fire sprinklers doesn’t exceed 1000 kilopascals – had also failed and were allowing water pressure of 2000 kilopascals. This is important because the maximum pressure for a sprinkler is about 1500 kilopascals.

“They were lucky that they didn’t have a water hammer problem or something else when the fire brigade hooked up because they could have easily blown a fitting,” says Barnett, a Fellow of Engineers Australia and a Chartered Engineer who has also lectured at Victoria University and Melbourne University. “Because it was a combined hydro sprinkler system that would have meant, that they would have lost all the sprinklers.”

There were other problems.

“The lift and the emergency evacuation mode didn’t work properly at all. It went to the 13th floor and 37th floor instead of shuttling people out from the building,” says Barnett.

Of the 371 apartment doors, roughly 300 needed some sort of adjustment so that they would close and latch automatically in the case of a fire, which is vital for slowing the spread of the flames.

Barnett says it was lucky the building had just 1.5 per cent of cladding.

“If it had been a higher percentage, I think the system would have been asked to do more. Would it have managed? Maybe. A year from now, or two years from now, with that continued maintenance, would it have managed? The answer is no.”

A widespread problem

Victorian-based, Barnett inspects buildings around the country and estimates that around 80 per cent of Australia’s apartment buildings have some sort of problem with their fire safety systems. This is adding to the danger posed by the flammable cladding.

“If you look at Grenfell and you ask why did so many people die, they died because the apartment doors had been replaced over the years and didn’t close or latch and seal properly,” says Barnett. “They died because the doors to the stairs were problematic … basically because the other fire safety systems didn’t work. They didn’t die just because of the cladding.”

Both the NSW and Victorian governments have banned the use of aluminium composite panelling with a polyethylene core above 30 per cent.

However, that leaves a large number of buildings with the material, and the states have appointed taskforces to conduct audits of the number of affected buildings so they can be remediated as quickly as possible.

They have identified between 10,000 and 12,000 buildings around Australia that could have the flammable cladding – although the full extent of the problem isn’t clear because it is unknown how much, if any, of the cladding has been used in many of the buildings.

An indication of the scale of the problem comes from the Victorian Building Authority, which has inspected the 2000 buildings in the state with cladding and identified 275 of them as ‘high’ or ‘highest’ risk.

The authority is taking the lead with Cladding Rectification Agreements – three-way agreements between a funder, a local council and the owners of a building to fund rectification.

This article was first published on Westpac IQ.

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Cladding Fire Safety

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