| 01 May 2020

Engineer registration: professionalising fire safety

Dr Bronwyn Evans, Engineers Australia CEO

On behalf of Engineers Australia, I’d like to applaud the Warren Centre’s recent and ongoing work on fire safety engineering, which has the potential to benefit both the profession of fire safety engineering and public safety.

For those who don’t know us, with around 100,000 members, Engineers Australia is the peak body for the engineering profession and our purpose is to advance the science and practice of engineering for the benefit of the community. We support all engineering disciplines – including fire safety engineers, and our thirty technical societies include the Society of Fire Safety, established to foster excellence in fire safety in Australia.

Members and volunteers of the Society of Fire Safety have contributed to the recent work by the Warren Centre, so my thanks go to them. 

Engineers Australia is also active in this area, with the Society doing detailed work on proposed changes to the National Construction Code, and their creation last year of the Practice Guide on Façade/External Wall Fire Safety Design.

Engineers Australia strongly advocates for a national approach to regulation wherever possible to maximise consistency, and minimise complexity.

However, a national registration scheme for engineers is not an option on the table. The Commonwealth has no power to legislate for it.

State by state registration is the only option 

For this reason, our goal is to have state laws introduced that are consistent with Queensland and Victoria, and that regulation harmonises between states over time. 

The more consistent we can be, the better we can:

  • Protect community safety to high and consistent standards regardless of location
  • Engender public confidence and trust
  • Enable mutual recognition and professional mobility and
  • Minimise cost, confusion and red tape.

Lives depend on engineering. 

Structural integrity is the most obvious example, but fire, flood, electric shock and landslip prevention, clean drinking water, product design… all rely on engineering.

Importantly, we think laws requiring registration should apply to engineers from all sectors, not just building and construction – and that it should also apply to engineers in all forms of building and construction, not just apartments.

Issues have arisen in construction outside the high profile “problem child” apartments. For example: a pedestrian bridge collapsed in Perth last year; in Canberra, in 2010, Gungahlin Drive Extension bridge collapsed leaving nine workers in hospital; wall on a Melbourne building site collapsed in 2010, killing three people; and there have also been collapses of silos and balconies.

Community safety demands that only qualified, competent engineers perform professional engineering work – and registration is the only way to make sure that happens

Registration is not a silver bullet but it is a key measure of accountability, and part of a suite of solutions. 

The registration of building practitioners involved in design, construction and maintenance – including engineers – is recommendation Number One of the Shergold and Weir report, Building Confidence.

We support the implementation of all 24 of the Shergold and Weir recommendations, however our advice and advocacy has largely focused on registration.

That’s because registration enables higher standards for every other reform that follows, and requires high standards of professionalism and practice.

It’s also an area where we currently play an active role in assessing the expertise of engineers, via our voluntary National Engineers Register and our Chartered credential.

I’ve been asked to touch on the “pros and cons of registration by Engineers Australia vs the states and territories”.

Under the model we argue for, which is in place in Queensland and coming in Victoria, the state registers the engineer.

Engineers Australia would be one of a number of professional groups that is given the job of assessing the competence of the engineer to become registered. 

Any breaches are dealt with by independent court and tribunal systems.

The advantages to that model is that it is cost effective, relatively easy to implement and fair.

Engineers who are on our National Engineering Register are automatically eligible for registration in Queensland and the signs are that Victoria will follow suit.

Greater clarity around expected standards and professionalism will enable the expertise of fire safety engineers to more easily prevail instead of lower cost solutions produced by people who don’t have the competency to understand the potential risks and impacts.

The current environment brings both challenges and opportunities for the fire safety engineering sector.

One of the biggest challenges is professional indemnity insurance.

Our members are reporting that professional indemnity insurance premiums are skyrocketing, and that coverage for cladding work is pretty much impossible to get.  It may be that government needs to play a role in ensuring some important fire safety engineering tasks can continue and we expect to have more to say on what specifically is required soon. 

Demand for fire safety engineers is high – with: a strong infrastructure construction pipeline; residential façade assessments and remediation being undertaken; continued residential construction; bushfire reconstruction; and requirements for expert evidence in court cases.  

Looking into my crystal ball, future opportunities could include:

  • More work with “digital twins” to model fire safety over time or track products in the supply chain
  • Roles for drones in monitoring
  • Greater use of new building materials such as cross-laminated timber and
  • Demand from city dwellers to insulate their homes from the effects of bushfire smoke by better sealing, and indoor air purification.

Already, there has been work by my former employer, Standards Australia, to develop a standard for labelling aluminium composite panels, and the University of Queensland is developing a “library” of cladding materials with relevant fire performance criteria that fire safety engineers can use to inform their decision making.

In closing, I’d like to note that fire safety engineering is a profession that, relatively speaking, is still quite young.

That means there are lots of opportunities to further grow, develop and improve, to refine and to define and to research while continuing to protect Australian property, infrastructure and lives.

In this room we have public servants, regulators, fire services staff, people from the property sector as well as fire scientists, researchers and consultants; also building surveyors, certifiers, product suppliers and installers and more…

That’s important, because fire safety is not something any one group can achieve alone.

On behalf of Engineers Australia, I look forward to working with other groups and the Building Ministers Implementation Team to deliver a national approach to implementing the recommendations in the report Building Confidence.

Engineers Australia brings to the table strong industry connections, access to a wide range of experts and an ability to harness the feedback of the ‘on the ground’ engineers in multiple engineering disciplines who will be crucial in taking recommendations from the page to the construction site.

It’s vital that groups like ours can continue to provide expertise and advice to the Australian Building Codes Board and the wider Building Ministers Forum.

I also look forward to working with all the professions represented in this room to ensure Australia has a building and construction industry that provides value for money and enables innovation while being safe, reliable, effective, modern and trusted by the community.