Fire Safety Orders - What they mean and what to do next

by Eliot Reeves

It’s no secret that the Building Compliance industry is full of jargon, formality and acronyms that make it seem like we’re speaking a completely different language. It can be easy to take our understanding of these industry concepts for granted. So, I’ve compiled some answers to a list of commonly asked questions we get about Fire Safety Orders.

First of all, what is a Fire Order?

A Fire Order or A Notice of Intention to Serve a Fire Order (their name, not ours!) is a document that can be given to you by the council if they have reason to believe your buildings’ users are at unreasonable risk of injury or death in the event of a fire in your building. They are issued under Schedule 5, Clause 6 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

Why did I receive a Fire Order?

It is part of your Council’s job to actively patrol their area for buildings that pose a risk to public safety. As such, some councils maintain a risk register to monitor which buildings are generally at a higher risk than others. Residential towers, boarding houses, hotels are often highest on the list because people sleeping in the space (and being sleepy during a fire emergency) comes with a large risk.

However, Councils can also be alerted to heightened risk by members of the public, the Fire Brigade or Fire Engineering professionals. If they receive a complaint about this, the Council will undertake an (often unannounced) inspection – and issue a Fire Order.

Will completing my Annual Fire Safety Statement every year prevent me from getting a Fire Order?

No. If you gain your Annual Fire Safety Statement every year, you’re meeting the ‘Standard’ of compliance when it comes to building fire safety. However, just because something is ‘Fire Compliant’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘Fire Safe’.

A large contributing factor of a Fire Safe building is the standard of as-built documentation available. With the right documentation, it is far more likely that you’re on top of the management, maintenance and repairs of your building, and thus less likely to be issued a Fire Order. An example of the documentation you should have (that is correct, accurate and as-built, not as-designed):

  • Architectural drawings

  • Fire hydrant and hose reels

  • Smoke detection and occupant warning

  • Mechanical drawings relating to smoke hazard management systems

  • Up to date and accurate cause and effect matrix

  • Penetrations register detailing the method of fire stopping and inspection dates

  • Fire damper registers detailing inspection dates

  • Annual fire safety statement clearly itemising which fire safety standards are applicable to which parts of the building

  • Test data from the latest full function fire test

  • Operation and maintenance manual for all buildings systems

  • Fire safety management document in accordance with AS3745-2010

  • Fire safety maintenance regime in accordance with AS1851

However, building safety is not simply a function of the quality of management provided or the maintenance regime in place. There is the potential that you own a building that is particularly old and if a similar building were constructed today it would feature significant fire safety features that are missing from your property.

A good example of this is an existing building over 25m that does not feature the typical fire safety measures expected for a building of this size. Namely, these are:

  • Sprinkler protection

  • Stair pressurisation

  • Zone smoke control

If you own an older building it is likely to feature hydrant, hose reels and fire extinguishers - which you probably maintain well. However, your premises could be missing these key fire safety measures that form part of the expected benchmark of safety for a modern building.

Can I appeal against a Fire Safety Order?

Yes. You can challenge the order in the Land and Environment Court within 28 days of receiving it. But you should first consider whether it is wise to do so and investigate if there is a genuine fire and life safety risk.

What kind of information does a Fire Order contain?

Fire Orders are commonly broken down into four sections

1.      Legislation

This is a list of relevant legislation, sections and states that you must comply with as a part of the Fire Order. It’s important to note that you are expected to bear the costs of rectification works to meet these legislative requirements.

2.      Reason for giving the Fire Order

This is generally a list of observations about your building that indicate the lack of compliance or safety issues. This is often further broken down into 4 sections:

  • Building construction

  • Means of egress (or exit, in laymans terms)

  • Services and equipment

  • Omissions (what they can’t see)

3.      Timing

This section will outline how long you will have to solve problems or undertake rectification works. The council will prioritise works that result in immediate improvements to fire safety (such as unblocking blocked exits, unlocking egress routes, signage) and give you a more reasonable timeframe to address structural and services issues that are disruptive and expensive (so you may have 180 days to install the correct signage across the property, and 360 days to install a suitable sprinkler system).

4.      Penalties

This section outlines the consequences of failing to respond to the Fire Order. These can be as significant as $5,000,000 in the event of a related death or major incident.

How do I comply with the instructions in the Fire Order?

Well firstly, don’t just ‘comply’. You will need expert advice to guide you through the process. Fire Safety Engineers, who have a detailed understanding of the science behind Fire Safety and building legislation are in the perfect position to help you manage this process.

It’s important to note that almost all issues that the council raise in a Fire Order are serious and genuine risks to the safety of the general public, but especially yourself and your building users. They need to be fixed in some way. However, the Council’s guide for ‘fixing’ it is by following the Deemed-to-Satisfy provisions set out in the Building Code of Australia (BCA). This is a bit jargon-y, but the point of this is that there is actually another way to comply with building legislation and the BCA.

Performance Solutions are documents and strategies designed by a specialised and certified Engineer. They do not follow the deemed-to-satisfy ‘guide’ in the BCA but can be demonstrated to still comply with the overarching safety requirements of the legislation. Performance Solutions are a regularly used feature of compliance in new buildings today, but more and more often we’re seeing that Performance Solutions can help owners of older buildings achieve safer results in a more cost-effective and less disruptive fashion.

In tandem with thorough documentation, the right maintenance team and clear communication with your council, Performance Solutions may give you a safer and more cost-effective alternative to simply ‘complying’ with the recommendations on your Fire Order. So, make sure your first step in the process is speaking to a qualified and certified Fire Safety Engineer to find out if it’s a viable option for your building.

What’s the full process of handling a Fire Order?

Here’s a step-by-step process for the best way to deal with a fire safety order:

  1. On receipt of the order or contact from council engage a Fire Engineer, or Project Manager with experience in this area to get expert advice on how to best address the council’s concerns.

  2. Meet with Council to understand specific concerns - do more listening than telling. Remember their observations are based upon one visit - they don’t know the building as well as you do. Agree to respond to the letter or notice of intention with proposed approach to rectifying the council’s issues.

  3. The period between the notice of intention to serve an order and the issue of the fire order is 28 days and is the most critical time in the process. If you haven’t already, get some expert advice.

  4. If your team determines that alternative options may be available, your fire safety engineer should develop a Fire Safety Strategy documents outlining the options available.

  5. Organise a second meeting with the council and ensure they are aware of any Performance Solutions that will be developed as part of the works.

  6. On endorsement of the strategy, the Fire Safety Engineer should develop the necessary Fire Engineering Report and undertake any engineering analysis.

  7. At this stage, it is recommended that you audit the fire safety measures so that you understand the full scope of any defects and rectification works that may need to be undertaken.

  8. You will then need to assemble a design team to review the outcomes of the Fire Engineering Report and to coordinate the rectification works.

  9. Once the design stage is complete, a builder will be required to install the systems and then commission those systems.

  10. On completion of the building works, Council will then be able to inspect the installation and close out the fire order. A new fire safety schedule can be developed for the building and then submitted to Council. This will form the basis of the new Annual Fire Safety Statement going forward.

A final word

Fire Orders are serious, but they don’t need to be crippling. Getting the right advice at the right time is crucial. So, if you’ve just been issued a Fire Order (or want to avoid the process altogether) you should get some expert advice and undertake a fire safety audit of your building.

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This article was originally published on Eliot’s LinkedIn profile, to see some of his other great articles, click here.