Bold Reforms needed to Revolutionise Fire Safety Legislation in New Zealand.

The Building Warrant of Fitness (BWOF) is an essential document in New Zealand’s building regulatory framework.

It should ensure that buildings are safe, healthy, and meet necessary compliance requirements for public use, but does it?

When something is deemed “fit for purpose,” it means that it is capable of performing its intended function or fulfilling its designated role effectively and efficiently. One might think that a Building Warrant of Fitness constitutes a suitable and sufficient assessment of fire risk, in order to deem the building fit for occupation. It does not.

The Loafers Lodge fire is New Zealand’s most recent and tragic fire incident. New Zealand is a nation of 5.5 million people and therefore 5 fire related, preventable fatalities due to fire is statistically significant. The causes, consequences, and lessons learned from this devastating fire will be tackled in three post incident analysis reports to be completed sometime in the very near future. These are:

  • An operational audit
  • Origin and cause report
  • Post incident analysis

This tragedy has thrown a spotlight on the BWOF process in New Zealand, shedding light on its significance, requirements, and the responsibilities of building owners, and the competency of independent qualified persons, IPQ’s and territory authorities (Building Control).

One more report is now necessary. That is an “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the BWOF and Evacuation Schemes system”.  This report should address the concerns of:

  • Responsible persons i.e. property owners
  • Enforcers i.e. Territory Authorities (Building Control), The Fire Authority – Fire Engineering New Zealand (FENZ)
  • The built environment, professions i.e. IQP’s, Fire Engineers and Compliance professionals.

Low hanging fruit, quick wins and no brainers the industry should tackle

Having spoken to a range of built environment professionals about the challenges with the current system there are clear and present issues which an official investigation will surely conclude:

  • Owners can shop around for an IQP that will sign off a BWOF if others have already failed it and therefore avoid essential maintenance or repairs to fire protection systems. A means for IQP’s to register building failure is required.
  • Consistency of enforcement is a major problem and there is a dire need for an ‘Enforcers Guide’ to ensure greater consistency nationwide.
  • It’s a cowboy market, there is a race to the bottom on fees and a national competency standard for IQP’s would be beneficial.
  • There is a need for sector specific academic qualifications for IQP’s.
  • Independent third party certification of IQP’s does not exist and this would be incredibly useful if a person certification scheme were developed in accordance with ISO/IEC 17024:2012 which is Conformity assessment — General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons
  • Each territory has it’s own individual register for IQP’s and would be preferable to have a single national register for competent persons.
  • There is a need for national guidance for building owners to be reminded of their legal requirements and the liabilities to which they are exposed and signposting on how to appoint a competent IQP.

What is a Building Warrant of Fitness?

A Building Warrant of Fitness is a certificate issued under the Building Act 2004 and the Building (Specified Systems, Change the Use, and Earthquake-prone Buildings) Regulations 2005. It provides confirmation that the specified systems within a building have been regularly inspected, maintained, and comply with the building code’s safety standards.

Specified Systems typically include systems such as fire alarms, emergency lighting, sprinkler systems, smoke control systems, and more. These systems are crucial for the safety of occupants and visitors in case of emergencies.

The BWOF Process:

Building owners or managers must determine whether their building falls under the requirements for a BWOF. Buildings that usually require a BWOF are commercial, public, or multi-unit residential buildings with specified systems installed.

Engaging an Independent Qualified Person (IQP):

An Independent Qualified Person (IQP) is a registered professional who assesses and inspects specified systems in a building. The building owner must engage an IQP to inspect these systems regularly and ensure they are in proper working condition.

Inspection and Maintenance:

The IQP conducts scheduled inspections of the specified systems to check for any faults, deficiencies, or maintenance needs. These inspections occur annually or at intervals specified in the compliance schedule, which is a document attached to the building’s consent documentation.

Providing Compliance Schedule and BWOF Application:

The building owner is responsible for providing the local council with a compliance schedule, which outlines the inspection, maintenance, and reporting procedures for specified systems over the previous twelve months. Once this is done, the owner can apply for a BWOF from the council.

BWOF Issuance:

If all specified systems are found to be compliant and well-maintained over the previous 12 months, the contracted BWOF agent (on behalf of the occupier) or the owner. When issued a copy of all paperwork is forwarded to Council prior to due date. The BWOF is usually valid for 12 months, after which the process must be repeated for renewal. It is necessarily a backward looking process, focused on systems there to mitigate consequences of fire.

Displaying the BWOF:

The building owner must display the BWOF in a prominent location within the building, allowing occupants and visitors to verify the building’s compliance.

Council Audits:

Local councils may conduct random audits to ensure that buildings hold valid BWOFs and meet compliance requirements. Non-compliance can lead to penalties and potential restrictions on building use, however there is inconsistency in the frequency and quality of audit.

Observations & recommendations

New Zealand’s current approach to fire risk management focuses on the adequacy of fire protection measures. This is also evidenced in a recent news article :A government audit prompted by the fatal Loafers Lodge fire has identified 70 similar multi-storey boarding houses across the country with no sprinklers“.

Fire protection measures are design features, systems, equipment or structural measures to reduce danger to people and property if fire occurs. The current system does not consider fire prevention measures, i.e. measures to prevent the outbreak of fire in the first place. Prevention is better than cure.  Risk is a two part concept comprising of likelihood and consequences and both parts need full and frank consideration if we are to undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of fire risk. To only look at protection is to focus solely on consequences of fire and ignore risk mitigation of likelihood, through prevention measures. A building with first rate fire protection measures, yet poor management may pose a greater risk than a building with limited fire protection but good management. The combined package of prevention plus protection resulting in adequate fire precautions.

“Prevention is better than cure.  Risk is a two part concept comprising of likelihood and consequences”.

Fire safety management needs to be regarded as of equal importance to fire protection measures. Fire safety management includes certain policies and procedures designed to prevent the occurrence of fire by eliminating or controlling fire hazards. The BWOF process is currently backward looking over the previous 12 months and yet it is important to consider mitigating risk into the future.

“Fire safety management needs to be regarded as of equal importance to fire protection measures”.

Could a new requirement under the Building Act 2004, and perhaps some alteration to the section 12 form requirement impose a new requirement? Will the Government in New Zealand consider a new requirement for “the responsible person must make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which relevant persons are exposed”. The FRA is a genuine open-minded approach to the assessment of fire risk and fire precautions. It considers all relevant hazards, not just fire precautions!

In this sense alone, a fire risk assessment is a more holistic approach to the control of fire risk than that adopted under 20th fire safety legislation in the UK.

Conclusion

The Building Warrant of Fitness process plays a crucial role in maintaining the safety and functionality of buildings in New Zealand, however it is not a suitable and sufficient assessment of fire risk on its own. The process must be improved. It ensures that specified systems are regularly inspected and maintained to meet building code standards. Building owners must take their responsibilities seriously, engaging an Independent Qualified Person and adhering to the inspection and maintenance requirements, however it is a process with problems and challenges.

“A fire risk assessment is a more holistic approach to the control of fire risk”

With a robust Fire Risk Assessment in place to support the signing of form 12 and a BWOF process for form 12A in place, New Zealand could enhance public safety and uphold the integrity of its building infrastructure.

The industry knows what is needed, but with New Zealand’s General Election scheduled for October 2023, will the Government act?  Will New Zealand embrace the benefits of a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment?