Canberra risks Grenfell Tower style disaster unless Government gets taskforce right

The United Firefighters Union ACT Branch (ACT UFU) and the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union ACT Branch (ACT CFMEU) have called on the ACT Govt to urgently review the scope, composition and powers of a special government taskforce charged with investigating the fire risk to multi-storey buildings across the ACT.

ACT CFMEU Secretary Dean Hall said that concerns held by his members and members of the public needed to be raised confidentially and without fear of recrimination, which led him to approach the Firefighters Union on this issue.

“CFMEU and UFU members have a long-shared history in relation to industrial accidents and the deadly legacy of asbestos in buildings. We need this issue of building cladding and related materials to be dealt with properly without cost being a single factor overriding worker and community safety. We trust the firefighters to do that.”

ACT UFU Secretary Greg McConville said that in light of the horrific tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London which cost 80 lives, it was imperative that the ACT Government get this special taskforce right.

“Canberra is a growing city with many old and new multi storey buildings, a high number of which contain materials similar to those in the Grenfell Tower.”

“No one wants to see a tragedy like that occur here in the ACT.”

“The fire risk in some multi storey buildings across the ACT is significant, but it is difficult to know precisely which buildings posed a danger. That’s why this special taskforce must be equipped with the right professional expertise and armed with sufficient powers to effectively complete this important work.”

“At the same time we need to stop pretending that one aerial appliance capable of performing rescues at height is enough. The Fire Brigades Union in the UK stated on the weekend that lives were lost at Grenfell because of the the late arrival of specialist equipment. In the event of a high rise fire here, we only have one aerial appliance and it is often off the road for repairs”

Mr McConville said that Planning Minister Gentleman announced the taskforce on July 4 which is a positive first step. But that there were no details as to the composition, scope, powers or duration.

“It’s imperative that this special taskforce includes senior firefighters at Commander rank or higher with substantial experience in fire engineering and fire safety. We can’t afford to get this wrong.”

“Without the expert advice and oversight of senior fire Commanders the taskforce risks becoming a tokenistic whitewash without sufficient powers and scope” Mr McConville said.

Both unions proposed that the taskforce investigate the safety of specific construction materials contained in multi storey buildings across Canberra.

These included:

  • Cladding: aluminium cladding panels and dangerous glass panels
  • Methods by which materials are fixed to the exterior of buildings: in some cases double sided adhesive tape has been used.
  • The overall fire safety context of buildings: including height, whether automated sprinklers are fitted, the safety of evacuation routes and plans, and proximity to adjacent buildings; proximity to walkways and roads, building occupancy and use.

“For example, Aluminium Composite panels (ACP’s) have been used in many buildings across the ACT and unless we can confirm they were supplied by a reputable manufacturer, no record will exist of what was installed or how it was installed. In those circumstances testing of cladding will be necessary to identify its composition.”

ACT CFMEU Secretary Dean Hall said that it was vital the taskforce be supported by a hotline, where all members of the public could obtain information and register concerns about buildings.

“We need to make sure that each and every concern is logged methodically, and addressed by suitably qualified people overseen by an independent taskforce operating in strict probity to ensure no conflicts of interest.”

The ACT UFU and CFMEU agreed that the taskforce should:

  • Have high level representation including:
    • A full time senior firefighter of Commander rank or higher, with extensive experience in fire engineering and fire safety;
    • Senior representation from the Building Compliance Branch of ACTPLA;
    • The Australian Institute of Building Surveyors
  • Have the power to investigate:
    • Cladding: aluminium cladding panels and dangerous glass panels
    • Methods by which materials are fixed to the exterior of buildings: in some cases double-sided adhesive tape has been used.
    • The overall fire safety context of buildings: including height, whether automated sprinklers are fitted, the safety of evacuation routes and plans, proximity to adjacent buildings; proximity to walkways and roads, building occupancy and use
    • Improper certification of properties arising from building investigations
  • Establish a hotline for concerns to be raised confidentially, and to provide information.
  • Compile a complete register of non-compliant and non-conforming buildings in the A.C.T.