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Fire safety high on the agenda

Sprinklers were a major topic for consideration when state representatives met to discuss protective systems in care facilities. Megan Stoyles reports.

NSW aged care industry groups have been shown how sprinklers may save some lives in fires but not all.

Sprinklers are not the only answer to fire safety, said experts from building, fire and rescue services from Queensland and Victoria, who met with NSW authorities and aged care services to consider fire protection in aged care facilities.

There is also concern at the cost of retrofitting sprinklers and who would pay for them if this was mandated.

NSW Planning and Infrastructure Minister Brad Hazzard hosted a consultative forum on Fire Protection in Aged Care Buildings in NSW on February 7 to specifically seek the views of the sector regarding retrofitting older buildings with improved fire safety systems.

Fire and Rescue NSW, the Australian Building Codes Board, as well as representatives of the Victorian and Queensland building codes outlined their experiences and actions taken in relation to fire safety in aged care and other facilities.

The NSW Fire Commissioner, Greg Mullins, presented a convincing case for the benefit of sprinklers in reducing both the spread and heat of fire and subsequent loss of life. He noted that in residential care there had been 1762 fire incidents linked to the deaths of about 40 people in NSW since 1991, and said that the major cause of death was super-heated smoke.

Following the Quakers Hill fire on November 18, the NSW Fire Commission undertook a reconstruction burn that showed clearly the limiting of heat and damage in the sprinklered room (750 degrees Celsius) as opposed to the unsprinklered room (1167 degrees). However, even with sprinklers, there would probably have been loss of life as there were two fire sources, and most deaths came from smoke rather than heat.

The NSW Coroner is still investigating the Quakers Hill fire in which 10 people died.

Victorian officials reported that following a serious loss of life from a nursing home fire in 1997, sprinklers were mandated with a five-year transitional period for retrofitting. While there have been nearly 2000 fires since 2007 there has been no loss of life from fire since, and 98 per cent of fires have been contained to the room of origin.

Glenn Brumby from Queensland told the forum that following a backpacker hostel fire, a risk assessment approach has been taken to all forms of residential accommodation, not just aged care. Sprinklers are just one part of the risk assessment, which also takes into account staff ratios at night – the time of highest risk – and smoke compartmentalisation techniques (e.g. safety doors) which can prevent a fire spreading.

Low temperature sprinklers are mandatory for all new residential aged care in Queensland and the transition for retrofitting is now midway through the process that ends in 2016.

The average price to retrofit in Queensland was about $3000 per bed. However, some providers at the forum said that their experience had been closer to $5000 per bed after adding in the cost of pumps, tanks and other items.

The subsequent discussion led to a general consensus on the desirability of sprinklers in all facilities housing vulnerable people, with the resulting questions being not if but how and when.

The providers present advised that the costs of retrofitting would be prohibitive for most aged care providers, especially those in rural and remote areas who have the additional costs incurred by low water pressure, and availability of tradespeople. Facilities would close without an acceptable transition period and funding assistance.

There were calls for further discussion and consideration of the roles and responsibility of local, state and federal governments, as well as the statutory bodies covering building standards and compliance.

Ministers and key stakeholders should work with sector representatives to develop a transitional approach to implementation to provide more data and examine how the retrofitting costs would be met. The forum noted that while this was going on, facilities were already – and independently – pricing and planning fire safety measures as part of their risk management processes.

Since the meeting, Charles Wurf from ACAA-NSW and Illana Halliday from ACS NSW & ACT met the NSW minister for ageing, Andrew Constance, on March 28 at which progress on the issue was an agenda item.

This was followed by an unexpected meeting with Department of Planning and Infrastructure staff and the two organisations. The department have requested information from them and the Commonwealth on how many aged care buildings are without sprinklers and the likely cost of fitting them. There could be some time before the final report and recommendations are made.

Cynthia Payne, CEO of large private operator Summit Care, who attended the forum, welcomed its considerations and the commitment of the government to find solutions involving all stakeholders. She said that a real issue in NSW was that fire safety compliance management was handled at a council level leading to variations between councils and changes over time.

“We deal with five different councils and each goes about the annual compliance management in different ways,” she said. “Some give us a blank form to complete, others have tables prepared and we have to tick them all off. That’s not quality assurance.

Payne said providers in NSW feel vulnerable and at the beck and call of their fire protection providers. “At Summit, we changed our fire [protection] providers from one who had paid the bills, done upgrades and signed off. I thought we were current, but our new provider made us make a lot of change before we could be recertified. We believe these processes need to be improved.

“No one is opposed to sprinklers, certainly not having seen the video of the impact of the fire but there is concern at the question of cost and unintended consequences of mandating, especially in the light of the growing demand for residential services.

She said policy makers did not want to shut down legitimately good services and as the Queensland experience showed sprinklers are not the only answer. All the options including fire compartmentalisation had to be considered.

“Staff need to be trained in managing fire and you can’t legislate to prevent criminal activity.”

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