SFPE (NZ Chapter) position on the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Safety of Similar Buildings in New Zealand

16th June 2017

The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) New Zealand Chapter members were deeply saddened by the tragic fire event that unfolded on the 14th June at the Grenfell Apartment Tower in London. Our heartfelt thoughts and condolences go out to all of those involved.

Understandably concerns have been raised as to whether a tragedy of this nature could occur in New Zealand. Official reports have not yet been released, but video footage shows the fire spreading rapidly over the facade then into the apartments themselves. Other media reports have stated that the fire started within a fourth floor apartment and the building evacuation policy was to stay in place until directed to leave. It has also been reported that the building did not have an automatic sprinkler system or an interconnected alarm system.

A 24 floor apartment building in New Zealand would typically have an automatic sprinkler and alarm system, two stairs and a fire riser main in the stair for fire service use. Exterior cladding should be fire retardant. In the event of fire the entire building would receive an automatic fire alarm notification to evacuate.

The Fire Service and Fire Protection Association of New Zealand have both stated that a sprinkler system is highly effective means of controlling a fire inside the building. So, if a fire occurred on the 4th floor there is a low probability that it would spread to the cladding. When it comes to a fire over the face of combustible cladding it was seen in the Lacrosse Apartment fire in the Docklands, Melbourne (2014) that it is not as effective, however in that fire the sprinkler system still performed remarkably well in preventing the fire from taking hold within the interior of the building. There was no loss of life.
There are typically many systems that work together to provide the life safety to occupants within a building and the failure of one system does not necessarily mean a catastrophic failure of the whole system.

Based on the current information at hand the Society’s view is that the probability of a tragedy of the nature of the Grenfell Tower occurring in New Zealand on a building with combustible cladding is low.
The Society recommends to people that are concerned that their buildings may have fire safety issues to consult a Fire Safety Professional. The Institution of Professional Engineers NZ has a register of Chartered Professional Engineers that practice in the area of Fire Safety.

In addition, the Minister of Building and Construction has asked the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to work with metropolitan councils to assess how prevalent the use of aluminium cladding is on high rise building in New Zealand. This is a high priority task for MBIE.

For further information please contact the Society’s President Geoff Merryweather (president@sfpe.org.nz) or Vice President Michael James (vicepresident@sfpe.org.nz)