New Tools, Strategies and Policy Directions for Performance-based Building Codes and Fire Safety Engineering in Australia

By: Peter Johnson, FTSE

Australia has been among the world leaders in the adoption of performance-based building codes that cover all building hazards, including safety from fire. The performance-based Building Code of Australia1 was first published in 1996 and was brought into legislation and enacted in all Australian states and territories in 1997.

It is now almost 20 years since fire safety engineering that supports fire safety design and alternative solutions has become the norm in Australia for the design of buildings and transport infrastructure projects such as railways, road tunnels and airports. The fire record generally continued to improve over that period, with steadily reducing numbers of fire deaths and property losses.2 Many would argue that the transition to performance-based fire safety has been a major success.

However, there have been a number of concerns that have resulted in major government enquiries to the building and construction industry.3 This has not been concentrated so much in the national building code and fire safety standards development. Rather, more concern has been directed at the regulatory and administrative processes in the various states of Australia and the lack of professional standards of design, installation and maintenance and their audit and enforcement.

Some significant fires have occurred in recent years that have required a change in emergency management strategies. Examples include the Quakers Hill nursing home fire, which ultimately led to 18 deaths in 2011; the Lacrosse Building facade fire in 2014; and a massive fire in a vehicle tire recycling plant in Victoria in 2016. In each case, government officials responded with new requirements that included changes to standards and regulations, such as sprinklers in aged-care facilities in the state of New South Wales and the new standard AS5113 for the fire testing and classification of building facades.4 For tire recycling plants new licensing arrangements have been imposed on operators. In some ways, sadly, these have been reactive policy changes that could have easily been foreseen as being needed to reduce risks based on Australian and global experience with these types of fire incidents.

One strategy that has been developed in recent years has been to introduce professional registration of fire safety engineers and other building practitioners, although this has been patchy and not nationally consistent across all states and territories. But regular audits and proper re-checking of general competence and continuing professional development for fire safety engineers and other practitioners have been almost non-existent in most states and territories.

A wider initiative has been the action of the Fire Protection Association Australia to introduce its national but voluntary Fire Protection Accreditation System scheme,5 initially for inspecting and testing (maintenance) personnel, but ultimately for all trade and industry practitioners up to engineering degree level, including detection and sprinkler systems designers. The aim has been to ensure appropriate qualifications and competence and improve construction, installation and maintenance practices. One area needing much more attention is passive systems, with many building inspections showing poor practices related to protecting penetrations and structural fire protection. As a result, in many buildings, compartmentation and structural protection is severely compromised.

Another area of concern is the role of private certification, which in some states was introduced in 1997 when the performance-based building code was legislated. Building design permits and occupancy certificates are often issued by a private building surveyor employed by the developer or builder. This leads some building certifiers to stray into building design and identification of performance solutions and then issue the approvals on those same buildings, which is a clear conflict of interest. This problem has been identified in successive state government reports6,7 with little significant policy change or rigor in enforcement.

The longer-term strategy of the Australian Building Code Board (ABCB), which has responsibility for the preparation of the Building Code of Australia, has been to look to risk-informed, performance-based approaches to building regulation for all hazards, including safety from fire. Meacham8 has undertaken much research and acted as adviser to the ABCB and other regulatory bodies internationally. He has highlighted two important considerations to consider if this risk-informed approach is considered for regulation, namely:

  • There needs to be a better connection between tolerable risk, performance expectations and design criteria; and
  • A strong linkage is required between quantified performance levels and performance criteria on the one hand and societal expectations in terms of risk mitigation measures and building performance outcomes on the other hand.

This suggests there now needs to be a major collaborative research program in Australia that is linked to similar international efforts that develops this risk-informed process for building regulation for fire safety and other health and safety measures.

For the fire safety engineer, new tools and methodologies will need to be developed and agreed for fire quantitative risk assessment, and a comprehensive national database needs to be developed in Australia to provide the necessary inputs to what in some ways is quite a radical policy reform agenda. The impact of private certification on building quality and health and safety outcomes is also very worthy of a comprehensive research.

Peter Johnson is with ARUP 


[1] Australian Building Codes Board, “Building Code of Australia 96,” Canberra, 1996

[2] Johnson, P., Performance-based Design and Fire Safety Engineering in Australia, SFPE Conference on Performance-based Regulation and Fire Safety Design, Brisbane, 2014

[3]  Johnson, P. and Barber, D., The BCA and Performance-based Fire Engineering in Australia—15 Years On, SFPE Conference on Performance-based Regulation and Fire Safety Design, Hong Kong, 2012

[4]  AS5113 Standard for the Fire Propagation Testing and Classification of External Walls of Buildings, Standards Australia, 2016

[5]  www.fpaa.com.au, Fire Protection Accreditation Scheme, Information Guide, FPA Australia, December 2013

[6]  Government Discussion Paper, “Improving Building Certification in Queensland,” Queensland Government, 2011

[7]  Victoria Auditor—General’s Office (VAGO) Report, “Compliance with Building Permits,” Victorian Government, 2011

[8]  Meacham, Brian J., Risk-Informed Performance-Based Approach to Building Regulation, 7th International Conference on Performance-Based Codes and Fire Safety Design Methods, SFPE, Bethesda, Md., USA