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FPE eXTRA Issue 52, April 2020

The Future for Fire Safety Engineering in Australia
Competency Is the Key

By: Peter Johnson, CPEng, FSFPE and Ashley Brinson, J.D.

The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering is an independent research institute situated within the University of Sydney. Since the Lacrosse and Neo 200 building fires in Australia and the Grenfell fire in the UK, the Warren Centre has been conducting a major research project entitled, “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”.

This project has responded in part to findings of the Hackitt Report in the UK following Grenfell, and the parallel Shergold/Weir inquiry in Australia which generated the “Building Confidence Report.” Both these inquiries and reports reinforced the need for a complete overhaul of the building regulations, professional engineering practices, certification and control of construction materials in the two respective countries.

In Australia, the Warren Centre project has concentrated its efforts on fire safety engineering as one of the areas highlighted in the inquiries as needing serious reform. The research has investigated the regulatory controls, competency, education, professional body accreditation, the state and territory regulations on professional registration (licensing), and the audit and enforcement provisions for fire safety engineers across Australia’s eight states and territories.

The first three Warren Centre research reports found:

  • The current state of regulation controlling fire safety engineering practice were substantially different among all states and territories.
  • The education courses for fire safety engineering presently offered in Australia were reviewed against international best practice, and major differences were found between the education offerings, with only one course being accredited by Engineers Australia.
  • The professional accreditation or assessment bodies in Australia, namely Engineers Australia (EA) and the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), have different assessment requirements.
  • The competencies used for assessment of fire safety engineers have not been updated in Australia in 25 years.
  • In two states fire safety engineers are licensed, in two states they are registered in a different manner, and in the other jurisdictions there are no formal requirements for professional registration or licensing at all.
  • Little audit and enforcement of practitioner performance has been occurring across Australia.
  • There is confusion in Australia between the processes of fire safety design, verification against building code performance requirements, and the independent assessment or peer review of fire safety designs and their compliance by certifiers (AHJs) in the public interest.

Future Role and Competencies

In response to the recommendations of the Shergold/Weir “Building Confidence Report”, the project team developed new statements of the role of fire safety engineers who undertake building fire safety design, for those who undertake independent peer review, and those within the fire authorities involved in stakeholder review processes.

For fire safety engineers as designers, the role proposed is for fire safety engineers to be involved from concept design to handover, evaluation of all fire safety related Performance Requirements in the National Construction Code (NCC), development of a holistic fire safety strategy, and be involved in inspections and commissioning. While this is common practice in many countries, and in some good quality projects in Australia, involvement is not always the case, and fire safety engineers are often not engaged past the building design permit stage.

Unsurprisingly, both the Hackitt report in the UK and the Shergold/Weir “Building Confidence Report” in Australia directed a good deal of their attention to the role and competence of fire safety engineers.

Hackitt suggested a lack of “knowledge, skills and experience” should be met with “increased levels of competency” in order to “drive a shift in culture” in the construction industry, and in fire safety engineering in particular.

Likewise, Shergold/Weir suggested there was an urgent need in Australia for a lift in “standards, competency and integrity”, with national consistency of registration of engineers, including fire safety engineers, and additional “competency and experience requirements.”

A key question to answer was why do we need to better define competencies for fire safety engineering? In a sense, the answer is obvious, given the fires and failures of buildings, and the poor quality and safety of Australian buildings identified through a number of government enquiries, even before the Lacrosse and Grenfell fires. However, there was also a recognition that competency writing had developed internationally, and we needed to adopt world’s best practice in preparing new competencies for Australia.

The need for reform was also demonstrated through some survey research carried out by Brian Meacham and published internationally in 2019. He suggested that a very significant percentage of fire safety designs and reviews undertaken internationally, including Australia, were carried out by practitioners who were unqualified as fire safety engineers or lacked the requisite competencies to ensure adequate safety outcomes for our communities.

Benefits

There was a strong belief within the Warren Centre project that there will be clear benefits across the whole built environment if we can achieve proper levels of competency and fully professional practice, with early participation of fire safety engineers in the building design process. These benefits have again been highlighted by Hackitt and Shergold/Weir and in the Warren Centre reports.

These benefits are thought to include:

  • More innovative but robust design solutions
  • Increased design and construction productivity
  • The “golden thread “of data with transparency of information and a clear audit trail from start to finish of a building project
  • More cost-effective construction
  • Lower life cycle costs for building asset management over its lifetime
  • Improved quality and safety outcomes for building owners, managers, and occupants
  • A restoration of trust and confidence in the building industry

It was clear that if significant reforms in fire safety and other aspects of the building and construction in Australia do not occur, we will continue with poor quality buildings, continuing significant fire safety and other health and welfare risks, and, as Hackitt has stated and Shergold/Weir has concurred, we will be left with “a culture and regulatory system not fit for purpose.”

Competency Development

The new roles for fire safety engineers proposed in Australia demand that new competencies for future practice be developed to meet these new role definitions, which will also inform changes required in our fire safety engineering education courses.

The competencies which have been used up to now for professional accreditation of fire safety engineers by Engineers Australia and the Institution of Fire Engineers, on which the state and territory registration/licensing schemes depend, are ones developed and adopted 25 years ago. They are simply 18 statements of fire safety knowledge, which are not written in modern competency language. They are completely unsuitable for a radically different and modern performance-based building code and ever-changing built environment with new materials and technologies and innovative architectural designs.

As a result, a key research task of the Warren Centre has been to develop a whole new competency framework for fire safety engineers. This work is encapsulated in a Warren Centre soon to be published “Competencies Report”. It is based on world’s best practice, including that of the International Engineering Alliance (IEA) and by reference to the Washington Accord requirements for engineering courses which encourages international recognition.

The competencies developed also follow the Stage 1 and Stage 2 competency framework now used by Engineers Australia (EA) to address learnings gained through academic qualifications and professional experience. The report covers the need for continuing professional development (CPD) and the requirement for regular auditing of practitioner competency.

As part of the research, various international sources on fire safety engineering competencies were utilised, including those developed by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). However, like other competencies developed, the SFPE competencies are more based on knowledge and do not in our view give sufficient attention to skills and professional and personal attributes, and often competencies are driven by existing education curricula, instead of the other way around.

These new competencies generated by the Warren Centre research address not only subject specific knowledge, but also skills, and personal and professional attributes, including ethics. For example, these competencies include:

  • Development of design solutions
  • Problem analysis
  • Environment and sustainability
  • Project management and communication
  • Stakeholder consultation
  • Legal and regulatory requirements

All are set in the context of fire safety engineering with indicators of attainment to demonstrate competency with examples such as:

  • Understanding of fire dynamics and fire development
  • Problem solving using CFD
  • Sustainable fire safety strategy development
  • Human behaviour in fire and application to design
  • Fire performance of structures
  • Fire brigade intervention and suppression

The next step is to have this complete competency framework, CPD and new assessment criteria adopted by Engineers Australia (EA) for their National Engineers Register (NER) scheme and also have IFE adopt it similarly. Given the Warren Centre has been working closely with EA and IFE, it is expected that adoption should occur reasonably rapidly.

In turn, the state and territory regulators need to incorporate the competency changes in NER and IFE accreditation into their registration/licensing schemes for fire safety engineers. Also, the education institutions, such as the University of Queensland, need to adjust their academic programs in fire safety engineering to deliver the Stage 1 competencies and grow the number of graduates to meet the professional demand.

The Warren Centre project on “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering” is nearing completion, and the three final reports with detailed recommendations are well underway. The reports are wide reaching, but a significant lift in competency and standard of ethics of fire safety engineers is vital to help transform the culture and safety outcomes for buildings in Australia.

Note: All Warren Centre reports on regulatory controls, education and accreditation, technical methods, roles and competencies can be downloaded for free from the Warren Centre website - https://thewarrencentre.org.au/project/fire-safety-engineering/

Peter Johnson, CPEng, FSFPE is with Arup, Melbourne. and Ashley Brinson, J.D. is with The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering Ltd

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