On a trip to Australia last year, I was able to catch up with an old friend of mine, Dave Boverman, who now works for the New South Wales Fire Brigades (NSWFB) in its prevention services department. I must say that although I’m intrigued by the similarities in our prevention methods, I’m even more intrigued by our differences.
The Lay of the Land
Australia’s fire problems are very similar to ours. Public housing, children and the elderly represent specific targets for high fire incidents and losses; the country also deals with a lot of arson.
Fire brigades in Australia are organized on a state level. This means that the NSWFB protects more than 309,000 square miles, including Sydney. Across the state is a network of 338 fire stations, 882 vehicles, 6,463 firefighters, 331 administrative and trades staff and 3,575 community fire unit members-primarily volunteer teams that defend property during bushfires.
The fire brigade protects 90 percent of the state’s population from fire, motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies. It provides hazmat response, building-collapse services and terrorism consequence-management for the entire population of New South Wales, which is more than 6.7 million people.
The fire brigade manages prevention programs a little differently than we do. Separate divisions include Building Fire Safety, Fire Investigations and Research, Community Risk (what we call public education), False Alarm Reduction, Commercial Safety and Corporate Risk and Environmental.
The Australians divide prevention efforts between dedicated staff and emergency responders. Operational personnel conduct preliminary investigations and call on-duty investigators only where major losses have occurred and/or arson is an issue. They also perform minor inspections and public educational activities.
Personnel follow the Building Code of Australia, rather than a specific fire code. Some elements of the state fire code provide them authority in inspections, mainly in areas where they’ve experienced major fires and losses-primarily public entertainment venues and boarding, or backpacker, housing. NSWFB
personnel conduct inspections much like we do, but they rely much more on performance requirements.
I noticed the NSWFB’s “Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulations (2000)” have different sections for dealing with outright appeals for regulation exemptions and for alternates. It sounded foreign (no pun intended) at first, but our own fire codes allow authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) the ability to waive code requirements where the code is impractical and to accept alternate materials and methods.
Because Australia relies much more heavily on performance alternates than we do, the NSWFB does a great deal of review for exemptions and alternates. Public education efforts are a little different too. Dave tells me they place much more emphasis on cultural issues and risk prioritization. I noted that their safety fact sheets are produced in 22 different languages, from Arabic and Bosnian to Somali and Turkish.
Fire safety requirements in Australia are much more often met by self-certification, especially in plan-review third-party reviewers. The NSWFB often serves as a reviewer-but not the AHJ-so its authority is limited.
But when push comes to shove, the NSWFB looks very similar to the U.S. fire service. It makes an effort to achieve similar engineering, enforcement and education solutions. And like us, its personnel remain dissatisfied with the amount of resources they have to work with. To learn more about Australian fire prevention, visit www.nswfb.nsw.gov.au. For operations information, visit www.nswfb.nsw.gov.au/community.
Last I checked, Australia was doing better than the United States in overall fire incidents. Although some of their ideas-like third-party reviews-may sound a bit scary, they warrant consideration. I intend to learn more-as soon as I solve some more of the ongoing problems in my own operation!