The relationship between fire upgrade orders and fire rating

When your building is considered by your local council as unsafe when it comes to fire safety, you or your acting strata manager will receive fire safety upgrade orders. A required completion date is set in the order, and thus, you’ll need to install the necessary upgrade such as a door with the appropriate fire rating as mandated by the national building code and related law.

What are Fire Safety Upgrade Orders?

Many buildings that were built more than 40 years ago in Australia are still standing and functional. In many ways, may of them are stunning and deserve to be preserved for years to come. However, since they were built several decades ago, they often lack many necessary fire safety features that comply with the modern standards of the building code of Australia fire safety laws, and thus, they need to be inspected to determine what areas they fall short so steps can be taken to prevent death or massive property damage in case of an emergency such as fire. When the building is deemed to be unsafe in the event of fire, a fire safety upgrade order is issued with a required date of completion.

However, what you may not realise is fire upgrade orders are issued not just when an inspection reveals the inadequacy of fire safety measures in the building based on modern building code of Australia. The orders may also be issued as the result of analysis of the fire safety schedule for the building. Either way, irrespective of how they are received, in essence, fire orders aim to ensure adequate safety levels for the building’s occupants as well as to ensure that adequate fire safety provisions are made within the building.

A fire upgrade order is different from one case to another. For some buildings, an order may generally instruct the installation for a self-closing door with a fire rating level of -/60/30 to the front entry of each unit as well as to all required exits. Another instruction may be the installation of a smoke alarm system, detection system, sprinkler system or a combination of all.

Prior to the issuance of the fire order, the owners, building manager or the acting strata manager will receive a “notice of intention” with details about what work will be done and the completion date. The upgrades, however, need to be undertaken by a qualified and authorised fire protection company to ensure that all of the upgrade orders are completed and comply with the building code of Australia fire rating and safety standards. Not only does it give you piece of mind the works are done correctly, but engaging a certified professional to do the upgrades also ensures the works are covered by insurance should something go wrong. Having a qualified professional is even more important when it comes to upgrading fire safety for heritage buildings.

What you also need to know is it an offence to not comply with a fire order and can lead to a penalty of $110,000 AUD on top of the maximum liability of $1.1 million AUD.

It is worth pointing out that if you feel you have unfairly been issued a notice, it can be disputed. A building owner can dispute the order, completely or in part, with the Land and Environment Court within 28 days after receiving the order. So once the notice of intent is received, the building owner should decide whether to seek professional advice regarding the feasibility of the proposed upgrades or imposed penalties, if any.

What is Fire rating?

Those familiar to our site, and our blogs will know that “Fire rating” is a broad phrase that is often confusing when discussing building materials. The Building Code of Australia, however, uses the technical phrase “fire resistance level” or FRL to refer how long a material can resist fire or an extreme rise in temperature before it loses its structure and/or functionality.

The FRL displays three values; each corresponds to the number of minutes (in 30-minute increments) before the material fails the standard tests:

• Structural adequacy – refers to how long the material can maintain its load-bearing function or can carry a predetermined load during a fire. This value is important when choosing building elements for load-bearing walls i.e. the important walls that hold up the floor or the roof above them.
• Integrity – also known as flame resistance, this terminology refers to how long the material can restrict fire and hot gasses from passing through itself.
• Insulation – refers to how long the material can prevent temperature rise on the non-fire side or non-exposed part of the material.

So, when you see a material with FRL of 60/60/60, this means that it has structural adequacy of 60 minutes, integrity of 60 and insulation of 60 minutes. Another example is the 90/90/90 fire rating specified by the Building Code of Australia for load-bearing walls separating sole occupancy units in residential high rise.

Not all Fire rated materials need to comply with all three elements of an FRL. For example, a fire-rated door may have an FRL of -/120/30, because structural adequacy is not necessary for fire doors since they are not load-bearing. The dash in this instance reflects that there is no value ascribed to that element. What’s important in fire doors in this instance, is its integrity or flame resistance level, and they’re usually available in 30, 60, 120 and 240 flame resistance levels. Another example is the FRL of at least 30/–/– for the obstructing material required for a building element to be considered as not “exposed to a fire-source feature” according to Australia’s National Construction Code.

The Legalities of Fire Upgrade Orders and Fire Rating

The authority of the council to issue fire orders to buildings that are considered to be unsafe in case of fire comes from the Local Government Act 1993 and Schedule 5 Clause 6 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Under these Acts, the council has the option to mandate owners upgrade or repair an existing building by doing (or refraining from doing) activities so as to ensure the fire safety or fire safety awareness standards; erecting structures or installing appliances necessary for the protection of people and properties in public spaces; or if necessary, repairing or making structural improvements to a building.

The NCC sets the technical standards for the design, construction and performance of buildings as well as plumbing and drainage system across the country. It is a performance-based code that provides the minimum building requirements with regards to fire safety, access, structure and among others. NCC Section C1.1 covers the general specifications for fire-resisting construction and sets the minimum fire rating standards of building elements depending on their purpose e.g. external/internal walls, columns, load-bearing structures.

NCC’s first two volumes are the BCA, which was introduced through the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Specifically, Volume One covers the building code and standards for multi-residential, public, commercial and industrial structures, which are classified as Class 2 to 9. Volume Two standards generally cover residential properties, or Class 1, and non-habitable structures, or Class 10. The third volume is the Plumbing Code of Australia, set in effect through the Plumbing and Drainage Act 2011.

Investigating the Work Covered by Upgrade Orders

The works you are ordered to implement by issued fire upgrade orders will depend on the inadequacy of your building in terms of fire safety. It can range from something as simple as the installation of smoke detection systems or emergency lighting to significant works inclusive of construction of new access stairs, installation on hydrant systems, penetration sealing and other major works. In any case, the works can be costly as well as disruptive, as it does not just involve investing in repairs or new equipment but also requires the hiring of a fire engineer or fire safety specialist to ensure complete compliance.

The time between the receipt of the Notice of Intention and the issuance of the fire order (28 days) is crucial in handling the issues, so it’s best to engage with a qualified fire safety engineer to help you address the council’s concern. An initial meeting will be necessary to understand the specific issues at hand.

Your fire engineer can then devise Fire Safety Strategy documentation outlining (alternative) solutions, to meet the council’s requirements. These alternative options are technically called Performance Solutions, which need to be made by certified, qualified fire engineers since they do not follow BCA’s Deemed-to-Satisfy provisions but still demonstrate compliance with the comprehensive safety requirements of the law.

Role of Fire rating in Compliance

Fire rating, or FRL as technically used in the BCA, define those values you need to meet when trying to comply with the upgrade orders. It will specify what you need to meet, and what the FRL is for each element. When you are implementing solutions, they will need to meet the relevant criteria as shown in independent fire tests. This is because the NCC specifically mandates that each fire safety element should undergo standardised fire testing, specifically Australian Standards AS1530.4 and AS4072.1, to achieve the necessary approvals and certifications on fire resistance. The results are what we know as the FRL.

Ultimately, this is where it can get a little confusing if it is not something you have great knowledge of, which is why, if you have been issued a fire upgrade, you may want to consider working with qualified fire safety engineers and identifying the right products – with compliance to the code – to ensure complete resolution of the fire safety upgrade orders. If you want assistance, contact our team today!

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