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Fire safety concerns ignited

CONCERNS about the fire safety standards in some Perth nightclubs and other high-risk public buildings have prompted the City of Perth to consider establishing a risk management strategy to ensure building owners comply with current standards in the Building Code of Australia.

The city is currently consulting with the Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia and the Public Health Department with regard to setting up a combined taskforce to address the fire safety issues associated with high-risk premises.

According to City of Perth council minutes, recent inspections of nightclubs and other high-risk premises by FESA and city officers have highlighted a number of fire safety deficiencies in many of these establishments, which include backpackers, nightclubs and other entertainment venues.

FESA has expressed concern that these premises do not meet the current standards of the Building Code of Australia.

According to City of Perth council minutes, a large number of the premises were approved when the building regulations were not as stringent in the area of fire safety as they are today.

Since November 1994, building regulations have required the provision of smoke detection in backpacker-style accommodation and the provision of an automatic smoke exhaust system or fast response sprinklers in high-risk premises, such as nightclubs.

A number of fire incidents in these types of premises, both in Australia and overseas, in recent years indicate the potential dangers to property and life.

In 2000, 15 people died at the Childers Backpackers in Queensland, while 97 people died last year at a Rhode Island nightclub in the US.

The City of Perth is concerned that a similar catastrophe could occur in a Perth establishment. 

The Department of Housing and Works has already indicated it is considering introducing regulations to address the problem and to give local authorities the ability to take retrospective action in relation to fire safety.

The City of Perth is pre-empting future legislation by attempting to take a pro-active role in the adoption of a risk management strategy.

The potential for retrospective action regarding building fire safety provisions is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposed strategy.

A taskforce formed by the Department of Housing and Work’s Building Regulation Advisory Committee, to examine fire safety in budget accommodation, has recently concluded that the Local Government Act provides local governments with the power to take retrospective action in relation to fire safety standards.

Under the proposed strategy, if a building is identified as high risk, the City of Perth will require that major modification of the building and safety upgrades be implemented, which will impact on both building operations and building owners.

Property Council of WA communications and policy officer Geoff Cooper said there was an overall presumption among building owners that building regulations were not applied retrospectively and the regulations applied only at time of construction or when major refurbishment was undertaken.

Mr Cooper said while it was important to have a high standard of fire safety, the Property Council would look carefully at any moves to apply standards retrospectively.

He said implementing retrospective standards in older-style buildings should be considered in terms of feasibility.

“There are a whole variety of solutions to address and achieve better outcomes for fire safety,” Mr Cooper said.

Currently the City of Perth and FESA conduct regular inspections of public buildings in the city, however the risk management strategy would involve employing a fire engineer to advise on the identification and prioritisation of high-risk premises.

FESA manager fire safety branch Colin Williams said the authority was working with the City of Perth to examine the whole issue and take a proactive approach to improve fire safety standards in high-risk buildings.

However, Mr Williams said it was unrealistic to expect building owners to continually update their premises.

He said one aim of the working group would be to work with industry to develop a set of minimum standards for high-risk buildings.

“Rather than wait for something to happen and have everybody saying ‘why didn’t you do something,’ let’s be proactive and improve things, Mr Williams told WA Business News.

“We don’t want to wait for another Childers to happen.”

According to Cabaret Owners Association president David Wallace, Western Australian licensed premises and particularly cabaret licensed premises, were already among the most highly regulated industries in the State.

Mr Wallace said the majority of venues already met rigorous standards and were up-to-date in fire safety requirements.

“Most cabaret venues have to be refurbished every five to seven years,” he said.

Mr Wallace said he would be concerned that retrospective action by local authorities would lead to significant capital expenditure by operators.

“I could well imagine circumstances where if someone hasn’t renovated in a long while it could cost significant sums of money and in circumstances where margins are already tight,” he said.

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