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Insurers urged to help tackle high-rise fire threat

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The Fire Protection Association has called on insurance companies to help drive up building standards by being more rigorous in selecting the risks they take on.

It has demanded an urgent review of the building approvals process following a damning Metropolitan Fire Brigade report on last November’s blaze at the Lacrosse apartments in Melbourne’s Docklands.

The report says the building’s combustible external cladding enabled the fire to race up to the 21st floor from an eighth-floor balcony, where it had been sparked by a cigarette.

The cladding material, Alucobest, was imported from China and had not been tested to Australian standards.

Fire Protection Association CEO Scott Williams believes many more high-rise buildings are potentially unsafe.

He told the incident should serve as a wake-up call for insurers.

“Insurers accept in good faith that buildings are being constructed and maintained responsibly, but they are not.”

The problem, according to the association, is that the Building Code of Australia is not properly applied or enforced.

It says more insurers should mirror the approach of FM Global, which carries out its own testing of materials.

FM Global Australian Operations Chief Engineer Andre Mierzwa told the current system lacks teeth.

“We are very lax in this country over the stuff that gets imported and goes into buildings.

“In this instance, it was extremely lucky that nobody died. We potentially have a lot of very dangerous buildings and we have just been waiting for these fires to start occurring.

“FM Global would not have allowed that material to be used, full stop.”

Mr Mierzwa agrees it will help if other insurers are more rigorous, but he does not think it likely unless there is a spate of losses.

“It is a soft market, and somebody is going to pick up the business,” he said.

Australian Building Codes Board GM Neil Savery told the code itself is not at fault.

“The Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s concerns surround areas where the code was not complied with,” he said. “Measures that complied with the code have been successful and we have had 400 people safely evacuated.

“But we are certainly not being complacent about it and are taking up a number of issues raised in the report.”

Mr Savery says responsibility for enforcing the code lies with states and territories.

The Victorian Building Authority has announced an investigation into the building practitioners involved in construction of the Lacrosse apartments.

It is also trying to identify other buildings using non-compliant external cladding.

The Insurance Council of Australia says insurers are well represented on standards committees that address the suitability of building products.

“Many insurers inspect high-rise buildings prior to agreeing to underwrite them, and also rely on policyholders making declarations that a high-rise building is fully compliant with Australian building standards,” a spokesman said.

“Many insurers will decline to insure high-rise buildings where a compliance issue falls outside their underwriting criteria.”