Brakes put on Victorian fire bunkers

Brakes put on Victorian fire bunkers

20 November 2009

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Australia– In another blow to Victorian bushfire zone residents, the peak surveyors’ body has recommended its members refuse to approve building permits for fire bunkers and shelters.

Last week the Victorian Government introduced fire bunker interim safety guidelines until new national safety standards are in place next year.

But the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS) has recommended to its Victorian members that they refuse to approve many of the permits.

Victorian president Peter Jolly says building applications under the new regulations should not be given the go-ahead unless they have been assessed and accredited by either the Building Appeals Board, or the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC).

But he says building surveyors and designers are in a difficult position because the interim measures are performanced-based and there isn’t any real scientific evidence to refer to in the approval process.

“I understand they’re expecting to set up expert panels in order to deal with this issue, but it’s a difficult thing,” he said.

“The Australian Building Code’s board who are the national regulators – that’s the body that develops the building codes and standards – haven’t done the science yet.

“I suspect these expert panels are going to do a lot of work to get their understanding of what’s necessary criteria for a safe bushfire shelter.”

The AIBS’s decision is largely a pre-emptive one, because there are no known deaths or accidents as a direct result of poorly-built bushfire shelters or bunkers.

“We’re not actually criticising the Victorian Government for introducing regulations, [but] people have already started building shelters out of septic tank-based systems and shipping containers,” he said.

“Obviously this is very dangerous situation and these may well be expensive coffins.

“They’re certainly very risky things, bushfire shelters. We know from the Royal Commission that some people survived in makeshift shelters, we also know that some people died in makeshift shelters.

“The CSIRO and such bodies have not done testing of any bushfire shelter products or done any scientific research around developing an Australian standard yet. If you don’t have the scientific research, you don’t have the knowledge.”

Mr Jolly says the AIBS does have concerns about companies peddling fire shelters and bunkers which have no safety accreditation at all.

“The ACCC I understand have done a lot of work in recent times into vendors of bushfire shelter products and I’ve seen a bit of news to suggest that people are selling products that don’t necessarily have any scientific backing,” he said.

“I would suggest that people take great care when selecting a product, and make sure that their design has been accredited by BRAC or has a BAB determination.”

Meeting the guidelines

Fire Proof Shelters co-owner Andrew Kelly says since the deadly February bushfires, his business has been fielding 60-100 inquiries a month for shelters and bunkers.

But he says after last week’s interim measures were put in place, he’s put on hold all construction and installation of bunkers in order to get the required accreditation.

“Basically with those performance standards, we have to justify how our bunkers or bushfire shelters meets those guidelines,” he said.

“So in other words, if we’re installing one, we have to assess the nature of the property. First of all the fire danger index: where does it fall on that chart, because that’s the most important thing.

“If you’re in the catastrophic top, the worst possible scenario, then that’d have to be looked at very carefully, so that’s first and foremost.”

But he says even if all the interim safety guidelines are met, the real test won’t come until people are forced to use them.

“There’s certainly no testing data as far as I’m aware on the performance of bushfire bunkers per se,” he said.

“We have lots of testing data of course on fire itself, which tends to be done on furnace environment, just heating a structure or an item like a fire door for example up to a certain degree for a certain amount of time and seeing what happens under those conditions.

“A couple of people have set up their own private type scenario or test. But the thing is, without having people inside, which is the most important thing, you can measure temperature and things like that, but what you’re not taking into consideration is CO2 levels, humidity from body temperature and all of those things.”

And since the interim measures were put into effect, Mr Kelly says he’s seen a number of businesses go bust.

“Over the last three to four weeks, probably with the interim standards or regulations coming out, there were probably three or four I saw that just disappeared,” he said.

“There are certainly some that I would look at and say ‘well that wouldn’t pass,’ just from the initial observations or looking at it from a general perspective, because there’s obvious risk of entrapment – there’s all sorts of things.

“There’s no way of monitoring what’s going on outside, just some of the very basics that if people were inside it they wouldn’t be able to assess what’s outside, just certain fundamentals covered by those systems.”

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