Newly-released research into effective and affordable fire sprinkler protection of residential buildings could lead to a significant improvement in Australians’ safety.
In a new report released yesterday by Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW), the Residential Sprinkler Research Report, researchers found fire sprinklers significantly improved the safety of occupants in residential buildings under 25 metres in height, preventing 90% of fires from spreading to other rooms.
The research was conducted by a partnership between FRNSW, Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia), the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and industry partners.
It addresses a gap in fire protection of residential buildings under 25 metres, which are classified as Class 2 and Class 3 shared residential accommodation and are currently not required to be fitted with sprinklers under the National Construction Code (NCC).
The research report also covers testing of two innovative new sprinkler system designs for residential buildings that offer high levels of reliable fire protection, while reducing cost and complexity on installation, routine servicing and maintenance.
Based on the findings of the study, FPA Australia, FRNSW and AFAC have jointly submitted a Proposal for Change to the 2019 NCC calling for a requirement that sprinklers be fitted to all new Class 2 and 3 shared residential accommodation buildings up to 25 metres in effective height, and the adoption of the two new sprinkler systems tested as options to AS 2118.1 and AS 2118.4.
“These buildings are some of the most vulnerable in Australia to fire because there is no automatic suppression,” said Matthew Wright, FPA Australia’s General Manager Technical Services/Deputy CEO. “They are also increasingly common as housing density increases in our cities.”
“Automatic sprinklers have been shown time and again to be one of the most effective ways of improving life safety in a fire. This research identifies new fit-for-purpose sprinkler designs that can greatly improve the safety of the large proportion of Australians living in these vulnerable buildings.”
The danger to these buildings was illustrated in the tragic death of 21-year-old student Connie Zhang in 2012, who jumped from a fifth-storey balcony after being trapped by a fire in her Bankstown apartment. Her apartment building was just 10 centimetres short of 25 metres, and therefore hadn’t been installed with sprinklers. The residential sprinkler research was begun following recommendations made by the NSW Deputy Coroner after an inquiry into the fire.
World first sprinkler testing
The three-year research project tested world-first fire sprinkler designs, unique in that they use existing residential water supplies or better harness dedicated fire water supplies to reduce cost and complexity, while still providing a high level of protection. The designs tested use innovative features such as connection to residential toilets to ensure any water supply problems are caught quickly.
The research was conducted using a near full-scale replica residence at CSIRO’s North Ryde fire research facility in NSW. Funding was primarily provided by FRNSW, with technical support including sprinkler system design from FPA Australia, CSIRO and industry partners.
Smoke alarm recommendations
In addition to the sprinkler research, FRNSW also conducted a study into the functionality of current residential smoke alarms. As an outcome of the study’s findings FRNSW has changed its recommendation for NSW households, advising them to install interconnected smoke alarms in every bedroom and living space. FRNSW’s smoke alarm research was conducted in collaboration with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB).
Fires faster than in past
The push to improve residential fire protection has been driven by the flammability of modern furnishings and building materials. Many of the current fire protection requirements were developed prior to widespread use of synthetic materials.
“Fire is a time-critical event – the earlier you know about a fire and the earlier suppression starts, the better your chance of escaping safely,” said Mr Wright.
“The average speed of residential fire growth is eight times faster than it was 50 years ago because of synthetic furnishing and building materials. These two pieces of research are about addressing that change and giving people more time.”