Much of the official responses to high-rise fires accelerated by flammable cladding are happening behind closed doors and the Australian industry is "not being fully informed", according to feedback from a fire engineer to the Queensland Association of Fire Investigators (QAFI).
Brisbane-based Ferm Engineering Pty Ltd’s CEO Steve Burton, presenting to the QAFI, said that despite a national task force being established on the issue, it was “frustrating” that responses were not national, but at different levels in different states and territories. In addition, governments were slow to react and there had been no firm action from the fire engineering industry, though awareness of the issue was ensuring buildings were safer.
“The new era of awareness is changing behaviour,” he said.
Combustible cores a problem
Mr Burton said that combustible cores within aluminium composite panels (ACP) are the problem, but ACP is “not the only enemy for external walls”. ACP is used for weatherproofing and decoratively, but has “crept into whole walls”.
He said the 2014 Lacrosse apartment building fire in Melbourne’s Docklands was the first major fire in Australia involving ACP, but it was not until London’s Grenfell Tower fatalities in 2017 that the issue came to the forefront.
Australia would benefit from the findings of the UK Government’s Grenfell inquiry, said Mr Burton.
Different regional regulations for ACP
A Senate committee’s interim report on ACP had recommended prohibiting import of cladding with polyurethane cores. The final report is due in August.
Mr Burton said Victoria had imposed a limited ban; Queensland had introduced chain of responsibility legislation; NSW had introduced the Building Products (Safety) Act; Western Australia had conducted an audit but no report was available yet; Tasmania had introduced ministerial provisions for bans; and South Australia’s response was similar.
He said building owners needed to identify and quantify ACP; conduct risk assessments; then implement mitigation and rectification. This should start with desktop audits and obtaining product specifications.
However, products had to be tested, because supplier information was often “inadequate or unavailable”. Tests had to characterise how quickly a product would burn. A testing regime has been established by claims service provider ICPS Australia and the Queensland University of Technology’s Science and Engineering Faculty, partnering with Ferm.
Insurer options for ACP-vulnerable buildings
Mr Burton said insurance underwriters’ options were to not insure potentially vulnerable buildings; to add exclusion clauses; or increase premiums.
ACP could prompt building owners to seek new underwriting markets and create a “new playing field” of shared risk and mitigation. Understanding the risk required data collection, risk awareness and risk modelling.
Mr Burton warned litigation was inevitable as courts determined how the new laws were to be interpreted. “It will take years to work through,” he said.