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Fire Assessment, Signage and how it impacts you!

Fire Assessment, Signage and how it impacts you!

If you manufacture signage or print and install it or have it installed, then stop what you’re doing and read this article. It will change the way you operate and could save you massive amounts of money and pain or, in extreme cases, prevent you from bankruptcy.

The industry is changing… again. And if you have ever questioned why you should be a member of an industry association like ASGA, then this is the reason.

Just before 1am on June 14, 2007, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a flat on the fourth floor of a 23-storey apartment tower in West London. It’s now referred to as the Grenfell Tower Fire. We all watched in horror over the following days as it is revealed that 72 people lost their lives with another 70 injured.

It may be hard to imagine how a fire on the other side of the world could affect sign makers in Australia, but it does. Quite simply, the Grenfell Tower Fire highlighted the tragic side of flammable core products like many ACM (Aluminium Composite Materials) and how rapidly fire can spread once ignited within the core. The focus of the cause was put on the new exterior cladding (ACM type), which not only contained flammable materials (polyethylene insulation covered by thin aluminium sheets that buckle in high temperatures and expose the internal material to flames), but was also installed onto the existing incombustible reinforced-concrete structure - in a way that left a gap between the facade and the building’s structure. This enabled what is known as the ‘chimney effect’. Put simply, the gap between the facade and the structural skeleton of the building meant that the fire sought oxygen and quickly travelled vertically, while burning more of the flammable skin.

Regardless of whether you use ACM or not, this has changed the way building codes and building standards are assessed today and by association, signage. This is having a massive effect on our industry now and will only increase in the coming months and years as we come to terms with it.

Ignore this warning at your own peril. It will affect you!

Signage is now being assessed on its flammability and its location. How it is installed, where it is installed, how it is manufactured. All as a result of this building fire in West London, but not just in the UK.

In 2014, the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands caught fire from a discarded cigarette and raced up the exterior of the buildings cladding and thankfully, all 400 residents escaped without injury. In a decision handed down in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) Judge Ted Woodward, ordered the builder, LU Simon to pay more than $5.7 million to apartment owners. This hasn’t settled the claims with apartment owners still suing for approx. $12 million in replacement costs to have the building reclad. 

In February 2019, another fire started on the 22nd floor of the Neo200 apartment complex in Spencer Street, Melbourne and thankfully again, no injuries were reported. Yet this highlights how significant the risk of fire via non-retardant ACM products is to the building industry and of course, the signage industry.

You can be 100 percent assured that global insurance companies are going to strictly enforce all suppliers of anything that is going to be affixed to a building. This will increase scrutiny, building methodology, delay time and cost significantly more as we struggle to meet the new and expensive code enforcements. 

My company, Kingman Visual, was recently awarded a contract to supply a sky sign for P&N Bank here in Perth. Straightforward illuminated sign, 1800mm high lower case letters in aluminium back letters and acrylic face with translucent vinyl and rear halo in a different colour. LED illumination. Nothing too technical or different to the hundreds we have supplied in the past. We followed the standard approval process via development approval and building approval, but were advised we needed fire rating approvals and were advised to send our drawings to a Perth based building consultant and compliance Approvals Company. We were then requested to provide fire ratings on all material to be used on the sign build. This included the acrylics, vinyls, paint and all fabrication items.

We were asked to address the following:

“A sign is not permitted to be fixed, installed or attached to the external face of an external wall required to be non-combustible unless it is a sign that achieves a group number of 1 or 2, does not extend beyond one-storey, does not extend beyond one fire compartment and is separated vertically from other signs permitted by at least two stories. Please provide test certificates for all components (other than electrical and light fittings) achieving a group number of 1 or 2 when tested to AS5637-1 And confirm the sign does not extend beyond one-storey and one fire compartment.”

Did you get that?  Hopefully, you have the test certificates of all sign components to meet Australian Standards 5637-1. And apparently the electrical components - the ones coated in plastic so we know which colour wire to connect to, to avoid combustion.

After meeting as much of the criteria as could put together, we then had to send this information to a fire engineer who approved the design on the basis of:

  • As the sign was located on the 21st floor, it would likely be a low risk as fire travels up. Therefore it would be one of the last items to ignite, and most likely this would happen after the building had been evacuated or the inhabitants had already expired.
  • The main casing of the sign was of aluminium and in the event of the fire igniting within the sign, the vast majority of the residue and ignited material would be contained within the aluminium casing which is not flammable.
  • The sign was not located over an exit point and posed little risk to the public if it caught fire.
  • The building permit of the entire structure was supplied with current certificates for the building fire procedures and processes; fire compression systems within the building; emergency evacuation procedures for the building; and all current certification for the buildings fire systems.
  • Once our fire engineer and building consultant approved our design and strategy, we then had to apply to DFES (Department of Fire and Emergency Services) for final approval. The problem with this is that it’s a new role for the department who are not prepared for this new requirement and don’t appear to be that interested in solving it.

To be fair and less critical, DFES are responsible for Bushfire, Structural fires, Cyclones, Storms, Floods, Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Hazmat emergencies throughout the entire state of Western Australia so being lumbered with sign approvals may seem like a less important item to be stuck with. But they have no real procedure yet and we had to meet with a consultant through a grated window interview, felt more like a prison visitation than a required process in permit acquisition. 

This process finally ended with approval, some six weeks longer than anticipated and significantly more expensive than allowed. This will affect all of us including those consulting us.

I asked the director of this consulting company how these changes are affecting his business and he said: “Massively, especially with building cladding!” He went on to say his insurance premium last year went from $3,000 pa to $20,000 pa, and that was only after he signed a document stating he had not approved any non-compliant cladding materials.

In recent months, ASGA (Australian Sign & Graphics Association) has held meetings in all States. In May the meeting was held at Wembley Golf Course and about 40 people attended, including suppliers to the industry. (Why the room didn’t have 400 people from the industry astounded me.)

We were fortunate at last weeks meeting to have Mick Harrold from Visual Exposure in Victoria as keynote speaker on the complex subject ‘Who has been impacted significantly and is as informed as you can be?’ Mick explained as best he could the building regulations covering this are three volumes of legalese that most of us will never fully understand. What is important and what came out of last weeks meeting is the need to cover ourselves legally and financially moving forward. (See also ASGA’s article on page ….)

If you think you can cover yourself by having your drawings approved by the builder and architect as avoiding the costs, delays and scrutiny, check your contacts and approvals as you will find they will say something along these lines: ‘Approved subject to terms and conditions of the contract’. And of course, the contract says it must meet all building codes. Attempting to avoid this process will only end up in pain and costs to you.  It isn’t worth it and this is the new normal, so we all have to get used to it.

If you aren’t a member of ASGA or another building industry association, join one now as they are already watching this space. ASGA General Manager Michael Punch explains ASGA is already working with suppliers regarding fire ratings and developing fire retardant or fireproof substrates that will solve many of these risks. ASGA is already working with these same suppliers to collate a catalogue of the existing substrates and their fire ratings so members can have easy access to this information as needed.

This is an event that is live and moving as I wrote this piece. Staying on top of the regulations is going to test all of us in the coming months and years. Affect us it will. It will be very interesting watching our suppliers racing to manufacture non-flammable acrylics and other substrates as it’s an easy assumption that whoever creates this first, is on one hell of a winner!

 

By Vernon Kingman

Vernon Kingman is the Owner of Kingman Visual and a regular contributor to Digital Image Magazine. With full in-house manufacturing Kingman Visual covers everything from vinyl graphics, signwriting, all the way through to metal fabrication and painting.

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