Fire safety signed off for a price

REBECCA STEVENSON
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2014

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Building owners are shopping around to get sub-standard fire safety systems signed off by independent fire safety inspectors, industry insiders allege.

The Sunday Star-Times has uncovered systemic issues with fire safety in New Zealand buildings, including non-compliant sprinkler systems, alarms and passive fire systems.

A number of secret settlements have been struck between Auckland-based body corporates and fire certifiers for the signoff of sub-standard fire systems, including a recent six-figure settlement with a large player in the fire certification sector.

A 2008 report by independent industry research body BRANZ identified serious issues in both new and existing buildings' passive fire protection systems. Passive fire protection is the physical system of walls and doors meant to slow or inhibit the spread of fire and smoke.

Despite the introduction of a more detailed checklist for inspectors in the wake of the BRANZ report, fire-industry sources say there is inadequate protection in most commercial buildings, including apartments, offices, hospitals and rest homes.

A number of fire-industry professionals have told the SST almost all buildings inspected have systems that are not up to scratch - either from poor installation and selection of systems at the time of construction or because systems have been compromised by holes being cut into fire-rated walls and floors by tradespeople.

The holes are then not correctly fire stopped. There is no requirement for tradespeople installing passive fire protection systems to have relevant qualifications or training. One hole leaking smoke can severely compromise the integrity of a passive firm system.

After construction, a building is inspected annually by an independent qualified person (IQP) charged with signing off the fire safety system compliance so the building can receive a building warrant of fitness.

Fire specialists say they're the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. By the time they are called in to inspect a fire system it has already received consent from the council, which is not picking up issues during that process.

So although they're uncovering problems when asked to sign off compliance one year on, their hands are effectively tied because building owners aren't too happy at being asked to fix issues with fire systems that gained consents such a short time ago.

And industry sources say building owners are then shopping around to ensure their substandard buildings get signed off by the IQPs when problems are uncovered.

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New Zealand Fire and Compliance director Alistair Bell operates his business from Hamilton to Turangi, and across the width of the North Island in between. He says he has lost a few jobs because of his unwillingness to sign off annual surveys for systems that don't comply.

Recently Bell said he lost a contract on a "significant" Hamilton building that had a number of deficiencies.

Bell had instituted a work programme to fix the building's passive fire systems. The building owner had continually put off the work programme, Bell said.

"Eventually I refused to sign it off . . . They went to another company who had a guy on staff purporting to be a fire engineer - but he isn't - and he went in and said ‘no, this was signed off by the council at one stage and another stage and I am quite happy to sign the certificate' because that company wanted the work. But the building still wasn't correct and it still had major deficiencies."

Property Council chief executive officer Connal Townsend rejected the industry claims and said the issues were with apartment buildings owned by multiple parties (strata titles) rather than commercial properties.

The council represents property developers and building owners.

"Why would a building owner want their asset to burn down?" Townsend asked.

He said building owners were relying on other parties to get it right - from the councils who issued consents and code of compliance certificates, to the tradespeople who installed the systems through to building managers who look after the properties day-to-day and the inspectors doing annual surveys.

"The owner is relying on professional advice."

Townsend said it was appalling buildings had received compliance certificates from councils and were later found to not be compliant. Councils were responsible and should be held to account, he said.

"Public safety is paramount . . . That is just wrong."

The Auckland Council has said it is unaware of any commercial buildings with fire-safety issues or substandard systems, though it is understood to have been named along with engineers in a recent claim filed in the High Court. It has said it relies on producer statements from contractors that all work complies with fire design before signing off consents.

Fire Group Consulting passive fire specialist Frank Wiseman said the industry had played its part in the problems. Some fire inspectors were guilty of "rubber stamping", he said.

FIRE PROTECTION STEPS

There are a number of steps in the process to ensure buildings are fire protected:

1. A property developer applies for a building consent. The documents will include a fire report, which identifies the fire-protection requirements and the type of fire alarm system. The local council will approve or decline the design.

2. On completion of the systems' installation, producer statements are issued. These are a notice from various parties (designers and installers) that the system is installed correctly under the Building Consent and Building Code. A council can accept a producer statement if the author is on the council's approved list or it can accept it subject to a peer review.

3. The council's building control team processes the consent to see if it complies with all codes including fire safety. Fire reports/fire safety systems can be further tested and assessed by the council or peer reviewed. During construction council inspectors check the building, including fire safety systems. If everything complies the building is awarded a "pass". Sprinkler and fire alarm systems are independently certified by private companies accredited by International Accreditation New Zealand. There is no independent certification requirement of passive fire systems or fire stopping.

4. The council does a final inspection and issues a Code of Compliance certificate. Before a building is a year old, an independent qualified person checks the building's specified systems. If everything is OK and regular inspections have been completed during the year, a 12A form is issued for each specified system and a building warrant of fitness is issued. This check then occurs annually. 

- Sunday Star Times

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