Understanding the fire dangers of overcrowding

By Tony Jones, Regional Operations Manager, WormaldiStock_000081959521_Full

With a growing preference for the convenience of inner city living, the trend toward higher density living in apartment buildings is expected to strengthen over time. As previously reported in the media, this is giving rise to fresh challenges in managing fire safety.

Overcrowding in apartment buildings is an area of growing concern. According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, local councils estimate at least 1,000 buildings were affected in 2014/15, although the number is believed to be higher because of under-reporting.

Overcrowding refers to a situation where the number of occupants living in a dwelling or unit exceeds the building’s design allowance. It often involves the use of make-shift partitions to create additional ‘rooms’.

Overcrowding can pose significant fire risks to occupants and neighbours by:

  • Substantially increasing the amount of combustible fuel (fire load) within such spaces, which has the potential to dramatically change fire behaviour and cause a faster growing and more intense fire. This may reduce the level of fire safety for the occupants and greatly increase the challenges faced by the attending fire brigade.
  • Substantially increasing the risk of ignition, due to a greater number of electrical appliances (such as portable cooking devices) and excessive use of appliances like washing machines and dryers. The use multiple power boards to power these appliances and a lack of space for heat dissipation can exacerbate the situation.
  • Compromising the fire protection systems, especially smoke alarms. Illegal partitioning can delay the movement of smoke to a smoke alarm and prevent early warning of a fire.
  • Impeding the safe evacuation of occupants and limiting access for the fire brigade due to placement of deadlocks on internal doors, such as bedrooms doors.

The warning signs of overcrowding
Strata managers are encouraged to pay close attention to situations where overcrowding may be happening. The warning signs may include:

  • Bedding and mattresses in living areas or on balconies
  • Excessive water consumption and constantly running water
  • Advertising for multiple housemates online, around the building or on nearby notice boards
  • Heavy traffic in and out of an apartment, or people having to be constantly let in by key holders
  • Unusually large amounts of washing

Managing the issue: is it illegal?
Currently, there are no clear laws in place to prevent the overcrowding of apartment buildings. However, some states are introducing measures that assist strata managers to better manage the issue. Reforms were introduced in New South Wales last July to allow owner corporations to make a by-law that limits the number of people who can reside in a lot. In 2010, the Brisbane City Council reportedly granted local councils across Queensland the power to tighten regulations against unscrupulous landlords.

Beyond knowing and understanding the relevant legislation, strata managers are encouraged to actively monitor any potential overcrowding situations and enact sufficient by-laws, enforced by processes and procedures (such as improved access control systems). Annual fire safety checks are a good opportunity to consult a fire protection specialist for a professional property risk assessment.

For more information on Wormald’s comprehensive range of fire services, including inspection and maintenance services, visit www.wormald.com.au or call 133 166.

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