How not to get your fingers burned over fire safety


Considering how few fatalities there are in apartment fires, the dangers from unit block blazes do seem to occupy a lot of bureaucratic brain space.

On the other hand, it could be that the diligence that may seem intrusive and excessive at times, is the reason you are less likely to perish in an apartment fire than a stand-alone house blaze.

Of course, at the forefront of all our minds is the horrendous fire in the Grenfell Tower in London last year, in which more than 80 people died.

But Grenfell was a special case, with inadequate fire safety and no sprinkler system all wrapped up in highly flammable material.

We’ll be looking at aluminium cladding on new buildings in next week’s column but for now our focus is on the older, smaller buildings that pre-date sensible fire ordinances while, ironically, often being built with materials that almost guarantee any fire would turn into an inferno.

For decades, the owners of units in older buildings have dreaded the imposition of fire safety orders. Sensible renovations and even basic building maintenance have been delayed or side-stepped completely for fear that coming on to your council’s radar with a development application would inevitably lead to a visit from the fire safety officer.

Added to that is the almost traditional neglect of maintenance (or sinking) funds in older buildings and you can appreciate the horror inspired by the prospects of being ordered to install back-to-base smoke alarms, new fire doors and, especially, a comprehensive sprinkler system.

The fact that you are living in a building that might actually need these safety measures to protect its residents seems to be secondary to the cost involved in bringing it up to scratch.

But what do you do when an inspector calls and the shopping list of essential safety improvements on his or her clipboard add up to bankruptcy for the building or, at least, a lot of heartache for people who just can’t afford to pay.

Sell and move somewhere cheaper?  Think what an impending bill for tens of thousands of dollars would do to your sale price.

The first thing you might do as a group is hire a building consultant experienced in negotiating councils away from their Rolls Royce fire safety measures and towards a Toyota Corolla solution.

Then, if you don’t have the money in the bank, consider a strata loan.  The premiums are slightly higher than normal loans but they help spread the pain that a massive special levy would inflict.

Or you could join the growing number of small blocks that are selling their rooftops or backyards to be turned into new units, the profits used to bring their old buildings up to scratch.

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