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Combustible Cladding – What is to be done?

Police have declared the final death toll from the fire in June that destroyed the Grenfell Tower social housing block in London as 71, after five months of search and recovery operations. This tragedy shone a light on the use of cladding with polyethylene (PE) core here and across the world.

The ABC’s Four Corners program revealed, more than a decade before the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Australian suppliers of aluminium composite cladding knew the product they were selling with polyethylene (PE) core was highly flammable. Despite more fire-resistant cladding being widely available in Europe and the USA, the cheaper PE core continued to be installed on medium and high-rise buildings in Australia until 2013 as a result of ambiguous standards allowing it.

Australia has seen first-hand how dangerous a high-rise cladding fire can really be, when a cigarette left burning on a balcony of the Lacrosse Building in Docklands Melbourne, sparked a major fire. The wake of both the Lacrosse Building and Grenfell Tower has fuelled scrutiny of building regulations in most States in Australia and accelerated audits to identify non-compliant building products.

Queensland is the first State to introduce legislation targeting non-conforming building products, including cladding. In July 2017, Victoria established a specialised task force to investigate the use of non-compliant cladding on Victorian Buildings. The task force oversees the continuing audit of the Victoria Building Authority (VBA), which was put in place following the Lacrosse Building.

The VBA has employed a methodical approach to the audit, using its coercive powers to access and analyse thousands of building-related documents including building permits, designs and plans. In addition, Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade have enhanced response plans, meaning extra fire trucks and ladders would all be called if a fire were to break out in known buildings that are considered high risk due to their cladding.

In NSW, the Fire Safety and External Wall Cladding Taskforce uncovered 1011 buildings that required further investigation. Individual councils in the Sydney area have also introduced programs and audits aimed at identifying buildings with non-compliant cladding, including Ku-Ring-Gai and Inner West Council.

In Australia, it is not illegal to import PE cladding or use it in certain situations. However, communities are asking we follow the lead of countries like the United Arab Emirates, which has banned the import of polyethylene cladding. There are also calls to replace any existing combustible cladding. Scott Williams from the Fire Protection Association of Australia has stressed, “It sends a dangerous message to the industry where we accept something that is non-compliant … I think there’s a matter of principle here as well that we’ve got to make sure people do what is required, what our codes and standards say.”

If concerned about your apartment building you should contact your owners’ corporation in the first instance. In increasing numbers property managers and owners are taking proactive steps to protect the safety and wellbeing of their tenants, staff and visitors. Including undertaking inspections of the structural integrity of a building and assessing emergency response preparedness measures for the facility. First 5 Minutes provides Fire Safety Gap Audits, which help in identifying and addressing any fire safety deficiencies, arming you with all the information needed to maximise fire safety for occupants. For more information, please contact us to discuss the solutions we have available.

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