New sprinkler rules will save lives

Published: 19th December 2018

All new residential apartment buildings above three storeys built in Australia will now be required to have automatic fire sprinklers installed, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has announced.

The inclusion of sprinklers in medium-rise residential buildings, a new requirement in the upcoming National Construction Code (NCC) 2019, is the most significant shift in fire safety policy since the introduction of mandatory smoke alarms in homes and shared accommodation more than 10 years ago.

The change follows a fatal 2012 fire in a Bankstown apartment block that was not required to have sprinklers installed, which resulted in the death of one woman and the serious injury of another. A subsequent coronial inquest found both women would have likely survived the fire without significant injury if the building had sprinklers.

The inquest set in motion a six-year collaborative project between the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW), Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) and CSIRO to develop and propose effective, safe, fit for purpose sprinkler systems for medium-rise residential buildings.

Changes in the speed of fire spread have driven the new sprinkler requirements. Research carried out internationally and in Australia shows fires in modern apartments furnished with flammable synthetic materials can reach the deadly ‘flashover’ stage in less than three minutes. That’s eight times faster than 50 years ago, and too fast for occupants to evacuate.

Flashover occurs when the contents of a room spontaneously ignite due to radiant heat, and is considered unsurvivable. Fire testing in a near full-scale replica of the Bankstown apartment showed new sprinkler designs developed by the project prevented any room from reaching flashover, while an unsprinklered burn saw flashover reached in two minutes and 45 seconds.

AFAC President and FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter is pleased the ABCB is implementing the research findings into the NCC 2019.

“The research results indicate that automatic residential sprinklers significantly improve the safety of occupants in the event of fire,” he said. 

“They can prevent a fire from escalating, which may mean the difference between a minor incident and a major tragedy. The presence of automatic sprinklers also serves to reduce risks faced by crews when fighting fires in homes.” 

The new requirement follows a proposal submitted to the ABCB by FRNSW, FPA Australia and AFAC. It is one of several headline changes in NCC 2019 confirmed by the ABCB last week, which come into effect on 1 May 2019.

Under NCC 2019, newly-built residential apartment buildings over three storeys and less than 25 metres will require sprinklers under the Deemed-to-Satisfy (DTS) Provisions, going beyond the previous requirement for sprinklers only in residential buildings above 25 metres. NCC 2019 also references two innovative new sprinkler systems designed by FPA Australia and project partners.

With funding primarily provided by FRNSW, the collaboration tested the new sprinkler systems at CSIRO’s North Ryde fire research facility in NSW. These world-leading sprinkler designs, now referenced in NCC 2019 as Technical Specifications FPAA101D and FPAA101H, use innovative features to deliver high levels of protection with reduced cost and complexity.

“Automatic sprinklers are one of the most effective life protection measures in a fire. This change to our national building rules will dramatically improve the safety of residents living in the 700-plus new medium-rise buildings of this type built each year,” said FPA Australia CEO Scott Williams

“This is truly a major milestone for all of those involved in this wonderful collaboration, but mostly importantly the community will see the risk of fire in these types of building reduced significantly.” 

Learn more at the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition homepage: