GRENFELL LONDON TOWER FIRE – COULD IT HAPPEN IN MELBOURNE?
In mid-June 2017, the 24 – storey Grenfell Tower in West London sustained a catastrophic fire which has left at least 17 people dead, 18 in critical condition and the death toll could be as high as 100 according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
The Grenfell Tower disaster will be the subject of a multitude of coronial and legal enquiries and court actions. At present, however, it seems that substandard and non-compliant cladding was a cause – potentially a major cause – in the extreme combustibility experienced in the Grenfell building.
Could such an event happen in Melbourne? Unfortunately, it could.
Indeed, it may have already done so. In November 2014, a fire in a high-rise LaCrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands caused more than $2 million damage. Five hundred people had to be evacuated. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
However, a review into the LaCrosse fire by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade concluded that the buildings cladding was not compliant with combustibility requirements set out in the Australian Building Code and Victorian Fire Regulations.
The cause of the fire in the LaCrosse Tower was a burning cigarette left on a balcony. That was sufficient to set alight some 13 floors of the building. The cladding, which was said to be non-compliant, was sourced from overseas because it was substantially cheaper than Australian – produced equivalent.
The cladding in question is aluminum composite paneling or panels. Such paneling has been installed in Australia for some 25 years. They do not comply with building regulations because they are combustible. When exposed to heat, the core of the panel loses its ability to bind to the external surfaces, causing the outer skins to deform and delaminate. In turn, this causes the core to melt and to ignite.
Some fire engineering experts estimate that at least 20 buildings in Melbourne had been fitted out with non – compliant cladding including the LaCrosse apartments in Docklands. The Grenfell Tower in London was recently renovated with exterior aluminum composite cladding panels. It may have been one of the significant reasons why the fire spread so quickly.
Fires in multi storey buildings are catastrophically dangerous for occupants. Unfortunately, most fatalities occur from smoke inhalation and asphyxiation rather than from direct exposure to fire.
What, then, can be done about such potential problems?
One useful hint would be the owner occupants of multi storey apartment buildings to ensure that they play an informed role in the Owners Corporation set up for such buildings. Most such towers will be subdivided under Victoria’s Subdivision Act and will have one or more Owners Corporations. Owner occupiers should ensure that they try and become a member of the committee of the Owners Corporation or, if this is not possible, to ensure that they attend Annual General Meetings or any Extraordinary Meetings of the Owners’ Corporation. Often, few if any owner occupiers bother to attend. This can be a serious mistake.
One of the rights of any owner occupier at an Owners Corporation would be to insist that the building is regularly inspected by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade or by a properly qualified fire engineer. Such inspections will ensure:
All firefighting equipment is current and operating
All fire exits are operational and have not been blocked off, sealed shut or otherwise incapable of use.
The building, is over 25 meters in height, has automatic sprinkling which is kept serviced and maintained.
These simple steps will allow owner occupiers to ensure basic safety measures.
Committees of management should also consider investigating whether or not cladding is compliant with building regulations. The first enquiry should be to the local council to determine who was the building surveyor for the job. If that cannot be ascertained, the enquiry should be made to the council’s municipal building surveyor. Once that person has been identified, the Owners Corporation should enquire as to what steps the surveyor took, when issuing certificates of occupancy or in final inspection to determine whether cladding elements did comply with relevant Australian and New Zealand standards, the Australian Building Code or with Victorian Fire Regulations.
Melbourne is becoming a vertical city. This is becoming one of its attraction with the central building district. However, such a lifestyle brings with it associated dangers.
De Marco Lawyers has expertise in advising owner occupiers and committees of management of Owners Corporation in relation to these matters. We also act for building surveyors which may receive enquiries on cladding and other matters relating to building projects.
This article is intended only to provide a summary of the subject matter covered. It does not purport to be comprehensive or to render legal advice. No reader should act on the basis of any matter contained in this article without first obtaining specific professional advice.
DISCLAIMER: We accept no responsibility for any action taken after reading this article. It is intended as a guide only and is not a substitute for the expert legal advice you can get from De Marco Lawyers and other relevant experts.