Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Introduction and background

Referral of the inquiry

1.1        On 25 June 2015, the Senate referred the following matter to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report by 3 December 2015:

The use of smoke alarms to prevent smoke and fire related deaths, with particular reference to:

  1. the incidence of smoke and fire related injuries and deaths and associated damage to property;
  2. the immediate and long term effects of such injuries and deaths;
  3. how the use, type and installation set-ups of smoke alarms could affect such injuries and deaths;
  4. what smoke alarms are in use in owner-occupied and rented dwellings and the installation set-ups;
  5. how the provisions of the Australian Building Code relating to smoke alarm type, installation and use can be improved;
  6. whether there are any other legislative or regulatory measures which would minimise such injuries and deaths; and
  7. any related matter.

Extension of reporting date

1.2        On 12 November 2015 the Senate agreed to extend the reporting date for the inquiry to 16 March 2016. On 16 March 2016, the inquiry was extended again to 30 June 2016.

Conduct of the inquiry

1.3        Details of the inquiry were made available on the committee website. The committee also wrote to relevant organisations inviting submissions due 31 August 2015. The committee received 29 submissions, one of which was confidential. A list of submissions is at Appendix 1.

1.4        Three public hearings were held:

1.5        The list of witnesses who gave evidence is at Appendix 2.

References to the Hansard transcript

1.6        References to the committee Hansard are to the proof Hansard. Page numbers may vary between the proof and the official transcript.

Acknowledgement

1.7        The committee thanks all those individuals and organisations who provided submissions and gave evidence at the public hearings.

Report structure

1.8        There are three chapters in this report.

1.9        The remainder of this chapter describes some recent fire tragedies in Australia and outlines the regulatory scheme as it applies to smoke alarms in residential settings currently.

1.10      Chapter 2 analyses data on fire related incidents in Australia, including smoke and fire-related deaths, injuries and property damage.

1.11      Chapter 3 considers the types and use of smoke alarms in residential settings.

Recent fire tragedies in Australia

1.12      There have been a number of recent fire tragedies in Australia. Sadly, some of these tragedies are particularly notable on account of the number of lives lost.

Slacks Creek fire

1.13      On 24 August 2011, 11 members of the same family were killed in a house fire in the Queensland suburb of Slacks Creek. Three women, four teenagers and four children under the age of 10 died in the fire, which has been described as Australia's worst house fire.[1] One of the survivors, Mr Tau Taufa, told the coronial inquest that:

he remembered a smoke alarm sounding once in the 1990s and someone turned it off to get rid of the noise, but he could not remember if it was turned on again.

Mr Taufa told the inquest he tried to put out the fire and he called out to those inside the house, but did not hear them.[2]

1.14      It was found that the house was fitted with two smoke alarms, neither of which had worked for years.[3]

Golinski fire

1.15      In the early hours of 26 December 2011, a fire tore through the Sunshine Coast home of chef Mr Matt Golinski, killing his wife and their three daughters.[4] The coroner identified a four outlet power board, the 240V Christmas lights and other electrical equipment close to the Christmas tree as possible sources of the fire.

1.16      The coroner's report stated that 'smoke alarms had failed to raise the family and by the time Mr Golinksi's wife Rachael awoke, the Tewantin home on the Sunshine Coast was engulfed in flames' and concluded 'if the smoke alarms had been functioning effectively the deaths could have been prevented'.[5]

Dunkeld fire

1.17      In March 2012 two children died in a house fire at Dunkeld in Victoria. The fire was believed to have started at approximately 3.00 am[6] and, according to Victorian police, was the result of a slow-combustion burner that ignited debris accumulated around the flue.[7] The parents awoke but due to the intensity of the fire were unable to reach their children.

Current regulatory scheme for residential smoke alarms

1.18      The residential smoke alarm regulatory scheme in Australia consists of:

1.19      As the remainder of this chapter demonstrates, the current regulatory scheme is complex. The smoke alarm regulations that apply to a dwelling vary depending on:

Development of the National Construction Code

1.20      In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) published the National Partnership Agreement to Deliver a Seamless National Economy, an agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories. This agreement stated that the states and territories were responsible for working together to implement a coordinated national approach to construction requirements,[8] and that they would have shared responsibility with the Commonwealth for regulatory reform.[9] While building and plumbing codes already existed separately, this Agreement was to consolidate them. Volumes One and Two of the NCC make up the Building Code of Australia (BCA), which sets out the minimum standards for smoke alarms in residential buildings.

1.21      The NCC was adopted by each state and territory from 1 May 2011,[10] which gave the document legal effect. Any provision of the NCC may be overridden by, or subject to, state or territory legislation.[11] The NCC must therefore be read in conjunction with the relevant state or territory's legislation in order to determine the relevant requirements.

Smoke alarm regulation under the BCA

1.22      The smoke alarm installation requirements in the BCA differ depending on the relevant building's classification. Residential buildings may be classified as:

1.23      In all dwellings constructed after 1 May 2011, or dwellings where substantial building work is taking place, the smoke alarms must:

1.24      A detailed description of further regulations that apply to particular classes of building is at Appendix 3.

1.25      The smoke alarms installed in a newly constructed dwelling must comply with the performance requirement that occupants are 'provided with automatic warning on the detection of smoke so that they may evacuate in the event of a fire to a place of safety'.[17] Smoke alarms will comply with this if:

1.26      Two jurisdictions have supplemented the requirements of the NCC. In the Northern Territory smoke alarms must be photoelectric only, and must be hard wired or powered by a sealed 10 year lithium battery unit.[19] In Tasmania, as of 1 May 2016, all tenanted premises must have smoke alarms powered by mains power or a 10 year non-removable battery.[20]

Australian Standard 3786

1.27      AS 3786 sets out the technical requirements for smoke alarms using scattered light, transmitted light or ionisation, and intended for residential application.[21] AS 3786 sets out the technical requirements for smoke alarms, including:

1.28      It also specifies that photoelectric and ionisation smoke alarms must activate within a particular 'range' when exposed to the following types of fire:

1.29      AS 3786 sets out a detailed testing regime for smoke alarm accreditation. The test must:

  1. Measure the response threshold value of the specimen to be tested eight times...with the specimen being rotated 45° about its vertical axis between each measurement, so that the measurements are taken for eight different orientations relative to the direction of airflow.
  2. Designate the maximum response threshold value as ymax or mmax and the minimum value as ymin or mmin.
  3. Record the least sensitive orientation and the most sensitive orientation.[32]

1.30      The response value threshold is:

... the aerosol density (m or y) at the moment that the specimen gives an alarm condition. This shall be recorded as m, expressed as decibels per metre, for smoke alarms using scattered or transmitted light, or as y for smoke alarms using ionization and measured with the smoke-measuring instruments specified...[33]

The ratio of the response threshold values ymax: ymin or mmax: mmin shall be not greater than 1.6.

The lower response threshold value ymin shall be not less than 0.2 or mmin shall be not less than 0.05 dB/m.[34]

Structures constructed prior to the commencement of the NCC

1.31      The BCA sets out the minimum standards for smoke alarm installation in new residential buildings, and existing buildings subject to major new building work. The requirements for smoke alarms in buildings constructed before the NCC commenced are set out in state and territory legislation. When determining the legislative requirement with regards to existing structures, there are three considerations:

1.32      The requirement to have smoke alarms in existing structures are set out in Figure 1.1.

1.33      In addition to the requirement to have smoke alarms in buildings constructed prior to the NCC, there are other various requirements in different states and territories. For example, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the unaltered part of a substantially altered Class 1 building does not have to comply with the BCA as a whole if the unaltered part complies with BCA Volume II part 3.7.2.[35]

1.34      In buildings featuring sole occupancy units within a larger structure (for example apartment buildings), fire detection systems in the common areas are regulated separately. The smoke alarm requirements discussed here only relate to the sole occupancy unit areas of the building.

1.35      In some jurisdictions, the requirement to install a smoke alarm is triggered by an event. In Tasmania, smoke alarm regulations apply only to existing properties which are tenanted.[36] In WA, only existing premises being tenanted, sold, or hired require smoke alarms.[37]

Figure 1.1: Requirement for smoke alarms in buildings constructed prior to the NCC[38]

 

Class

ACT

NSW

NT

QLD

SA

TAS

VIC

WA

Stand alone

1a

1b

Units

2

3

4

1.36      The specific requirements for smoke alarms in existing buildings vary across the states and territories. A detailed outline of these requirements is set out at Appendix 4. To summarise these requirements:

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