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Fire Safety Review a slow burner - Greater industry input urged

From Fire NZ, September 2015

A poor fire industry response to an extensive review of fire safety regulations and practice in New Zealand means critical changes, now being considered as part of an extended Fire Programme process, have been influenced by around 10 percent of those eligible to have a say.

NZ Fire Protection Association chief executive Keith Blind warns the New Zealand fire industry has become far too apathetic about its own future. “People either aren’t across the issues or they don’t care about them. We need a more cohesive cross industry view.”

The MBIE effort to get industry involved, including a comprehensive questionnaire on issues impacting fire safety, saw around 80% of those involved making no comment and many failing to even tick the basic choice boxes. Serious concerns have been raised about conflicts, confusion and misunderstanding since the revision of the Building Code provisions and supporting documents for fire safety were first released in April 2012.

The law change which came into effect in July 2013 was supposed to improve criteria and methods for designers, fire engineers and Building Consent Authorities so that fire design could be applied more consistently. MBIE conceded the fire and building industry had struggled with significant changes in content and structure, leaving things open to interpretation and resulting in inconsistencies with the way the new fire safety requirements were interpreted.

After six months of processing industry feedback MBIE announced at the end of July, a series of 14 projects known as the Fire Programme, designed to make fire safety more “performance based”.

 Slipping into the future

While the timeline stated it would be all done and dusted by around August 2016, MBIE project manager Chris Rutledge admits there’s likely to be spill over into 2017 for at least six of the projects.

Each project has a timeframe and review process to ensure it is on track with quarterly updates provided and opportunities for stakeholders to have input. In several cases there will be a need for further extensive consultation.

Rutledge says it’s unlikely any of the Fire Programme adjustments will need legislative changes, although any Building Code changes will require detailed or full public consultation, including those relating to acceptable solutions and timber linings.

“Code changes require ministerial decisions and some will be delegated to the chief executive of MBIE and the general manager of building systems performance.”

In the meantime the industry will have to work with existing codes and requirements. “There’s nothing technically wrong with existing fire regulations. This is an opportunity for stakeholders to work with MBIE to make changes around how the system works.”

Rutledge agrees some aspects of the system are “not working as efficiently as they need to be from anyone’s perspective, particularly in relation to consenting...which
is probably harder than it needs to be.”

The goal is to achieve as much as possible by the end of 2016. “A good approach to anything like this is to take a pause after 18 months, assess what we have achieved, look at what’s left and apply what we have learned to the rest of the programme.”

Rutledge says four projects are underway including supported housing (for the disabled) and the reintroduction of alternate solutions and the effectiveness of the fire engineering brief (FEB) process, which are at an early stage.

The review of acceptable solutions (C/AS1-7) is also underway and fire design for prisons, fire stations and other specialist buildings is “quite a way down the track”. Passive fire protection will kick off early next year.

MBIE chief engineer Mike Stannard says the Fire Programme charts a clear direction and comprehensive plan for the future development of fire regulations.

“It is expected that through
a more interactive and inclusive stakeholder engagement, coupled with other sector-based initiatives, MBIE and the sector will be better able to deliver on their expected roles within the regulatory system.”

Failure to ignite interest

The Fire Safety Review was designed to improve co-ordination across the sector and with MBIE but failed to ignite a groundswell
of interest in the initial consultation process.

Around 3700 representatives of the wider fire industry, excluding the NZ Fire Service, were given the opportunity to participate in five workshops in major centres last year seeking to understand what was and wasn’t working.

Only around 250 turned up throughout the country. Then, of the 220 stakeholders responding to emails in October 2014, an average of less than 20% ticked the boxes or gave any written feedback to questionnaires “designed to drill deeper into the key issues” raised during the workshops.

Project manager Chris Rutlege says MBIE has an email list of 800- 900 stakeholders, representing
the majority of those who want to be actively involved. “We think a quarter of those turning out to the workshops to give us feedback is pretty good.”

But what about the low response from the questionnaire? He reckons a lot of that had to do with the number of questions and how they were structured. “A lot of people only answered those questions in which they had a specific interest.”

While the feedback was low at one level, those on the mailing list helped give a fairly representative view. “I think we would design the questionnaire differently if we did the same thing again.”

Rutlege is hoping for “high level of engagement as we move into these projects including participation in working groups and feedback on what’s been developed.”

Although valuable high-level comments reflecting wider industry concerns were made during the process, FPANZ CEO Keith Blind remains concerned at the level of apathy.

Most contributors appeared to be fire engineers and building controllers, “where, for example were the property management groups?”

Even a separate FPANZ survey didn’t attract the level of response it was hoping for to ensure all stakeholders were informed about proposed changes.

The FPANZ survey seeking answers to 30 questions including 15 specific member concerns, was accepted after the MOBIE deadline in an attempt to add value to the research.

Time to move forward

In presenting the summary of the initial review of the 2012 Fire Safety Building Code, MBIE’s chief engineer Mike Stannard, stated much had been learned and it was now “time to move forward”.

He concluded: “Re-litigating issues and concerns around the history of the changes will only slow and stymy the progress we can collectively make.”

The goal was to achieve a collaborative sector-wide approach to achieve “an effective and efficient best practice regulatory system for fire safety in New Zealand”.

The review partly arose from a briefing of key MBIE staff in September 2014 where concerns were raised about earlier fire safety code changes, particularly engagement with “fire review stakeholders”.

Among the top issues raised were the need for further guidance around alterations to existing buildings including how passive fire resistance was treated along with concerns about delays, increased costs and a lack of accountability and confidence.

There was a need to clarify the building inspection regime and WOF compliance schedule to address a disconnect with legislation which had led to uncertainty.

Industry feedback showed concern at the widely varying advice offered by BCAs and a recommendation that more training and guidance on Fire Safety Design be provided to them, architects and tradies.

Feedback suggested it was difficult to find qualified fire engineers and BCA’s with sufficient knowledge and proper training.

It was suggested the Building WOF Compliance Schedule should include signage and passive fire protection measures, including greater awareness of the inter- dependency of systems.

Consenting inconsistencies

Claims were made of inconsistency between what was agreed during resource consent and evacuation regulations with designers hiding behind the Building Code level of performance “creating conflict and issues for their client down the track.”

It was also suggested current “acceptable solutions” had increased costs for building owners without increasing safety or providing value for money with errors across multiple documents causing confusion, delays and uncertainty.

Some acceptable solutions were allegedly inconsistent with the Building Code, with councils not understand the consenting and compliance requirements and designers spending too much time having to justify their designs.

The NZ Fire Service came in for its fair share of criticism in the Review document. The role of Fire Service involvement was questioned with suggestions it should limit its advice to what was required by the Building Act without requiring “an engineering review on top of the peer review”.

It was alleged that there were too many requests for further information arising from the Fire Service consent review, resulting in delays and increased costs.

Another response suggested the Fire Service ought to be
better resourced with qualified
fire engineers and get back to the basics of “looking at operational reviews or evacuation scheme approvals and administration of trial evacuations.” There was a request for a complaint process for NZFS failings.

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