Emergency Planning in Apartment Buildings

An Original Essay by Alan Short Winner of the SCA (SA/NT) 2021 Essay Award

Is compliance with the written requirements of the law enough? This is the question that I want to explore as part of this essay as it relates to emergency planning for apartment buildings.

What is Emergency Planning?

Research has shown that 85% of people don’t respond as you expect in an emergency. When the fire alarm activates the majority of people will not evacuate the building, they will stay in their apartment assuming it’s “another false alarm” or they will panic and be too scared to move.

The result is people’s lives are put at risk because they have not taken the appropriate action – to evacuate the building.

Emergency Planning is the process of designing a set of standard procedures for dealing with different types of emergencies that can reasonably be expected and then training the occupants of the building in their use. The result is that the majority of occupants respond appropriately in an emergency.

What is an apartment building?

For the purposes of this essay apartment buildings are multiple single occupant dwellings with integrated fire alarm and protection systems (such as sprinkler systems) and can be three or more storeys high – some could be 10, 20 or more.

What do you legally need to comply with?

The Work Health and Safety Act and Regulations require a workplace to have an Emergency Plan, but clause 7 of the regulations state that a residential strata or community corporation is not a person conducting a business and therefore excluded from complying with the majority of the Act and Regulations – including preparing an Emergency Plan.

There is also a duty of care requirement of everyone involved in managing an apartment building. The principle of duty of care is that you have an obligation to avoid acts or omissions, which could be reasonably foreseen to injure or harm other people. So, if having an Emergency Plan in place will mitigate a foreseeable injury or harm to a person then the corporation (in the opinion of the author) has a duty of care to provide the Emergency Plan. The problem is that this is not specified in writing.

But what is the risk?

Work health and safety assessors use a standardised matrix for assessing risk that compares the consequence should an event happen with the likelihood of the event occurring.

If a fire occurs in an apartment building death and massive financial loss could occur. Examples of this are the 70 people that died in the Grenfell Tower fire in London (2017) and the death in the Bankstown apartment fire in NSW (2012). This is the highest level of consequence.

The likelihood of a fire in an apartment is “possible”. “Possible” is defined as an event that could happen or is known to happen once a year. In 2019/20 the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service responded to 942 structural fires which includes apartment buildings, houses, offices, shops etc.. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of these occurred in an apartment building. In locations, such as Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast where there is a higher number of apartment dwellings the likelihood would increase.

This result is the risk is high and work health and safety risk management principles recommend that the risk is eliminated or reduced – and one of the steps to do this is through an Emergency Plan.

What about the fire systems in the building?

Modern apartment buildings are safe, but catastrophic fires can and do still occur in them.

A modern apartment building usually includes fire walls to contain fires, fire alarm systems to alert occupants, and sprinkler systems to supress a fire.

Unfortunately, as noted above, most people do not respond as you expect when the fire alarm is activated putting them at risk. An analogy to consider is that seatbelts in cars save lives, but without the training to put one on they are useless.

What are the community’s expectations?

If you were in a serviced apartment or hotel then there is a requirement under the Work Health and Safety Act and Regulations for an Emergency Plan to be prepared. This includes Airbnb style accommodation.

There is often no physical difference in the building between serviced apartments and a residential apartments – they are often mixed together in the one building.

These apartment buildings are often occupied by younger people, and parents, me included, would expect that there are systems in place (physical systems, procedures and training) to ensure that our children are safe. And at the moment, in the opinion of the author, this has not been achieved.

So what should the Strata Industry do about it?

There are two problems, the first is that the current Australian Standard associated with Emergency Planning is focused on workplaces, like offices, factories, warehouses etc. They can not be directly applied to apartments.

The main issues are that the occupants of the building are not always there – like staff in an office, the roles in the standard Emergency Plan are not always able to be filled (wardens etc), and that the training needs to occur outside of normal business hours or using alternative delivery methods.

So, either a new standard or an amendment to the current standard is required to prescribe how to prepare an Emergency Plan for apartment buildings.

In the short term this could be in the form of a guideline published by the SCA or Fire Protection Association Australia (or jointly published).

And secondly, a document is required explaining to the corporations that they do have a requirement to prepare and maintain an Emergency Plan. The first stage is to confirm the opinion of this author that there is a duty of care to provide an Emergency Plan.

The creation of Emergency Plans for apartment buildings will, in the opinion of the author, save lives and should therefore be considered as an important project for the industry.

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