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Essential services: Responsibilities of
building owners

By Drew Mountney, Melbourne Fire & Electrical

The recent fire which broke out at a multi-storey apartment in Docklands is a timely reminder to owners and owners corporations across Australia that fire maintenance and management is a collective responsibility.

It is important to note that the Docklands fire broke out on a private balcony due to inappropriately stored equipment behind a private air conditioner unit. Whilst we could write about the benefits of good housekeeping to avoid the build-up of flammable clutter and ensuring that air conditioning units are regularly maintained, this incident also highlights a number of more global essential safety maintenance issues:

  • first is the obligation for owners to maintain the essential services in their building (particularly within their own apartments)
  • second is the limitations on essential services contractors who are often only contracted to maintain common areas.

The Building Regulations impose a requirement on owners to comply with the maintenance requirements listed within their Occupancy Permit or Certificate of Final Inspection. Owners who are members of an owners corporation will often outsource their responsibilities with respect to common areas. We assume that the building manager of the Docklands building had appointed an essential services contractor to maintain the essential services in the building.

The job of an essential services contractor is to ensure that their designated essential service is maintained and operates at the level stipulated to fulfil its purpose. As the essential services contractor is appointed by the owners corporation manager their instructions will ordinarily be limited to common areas. Due to costs and access issues, individual apartments are often not inspected. This leaves the onus on the apartment owners to ensure that the essential services within their own apartment are regularly maintained.

Owners corporation managers should seek advice from the RBS or their essential services contractor as to the most practical way to ensure that the essential services within each apartment is maintained. It may be that a sample of apartments is audited each year so that at the end of a set period of time all apartments will have been inspected.

The alternative is that apartment owners be educated to maintain their own apartments or engage their own consultants to provide fire safety audits. This however depends on the reliability of owners to carry out their obligations. Whatever the solution is, it is clear that fire maintenance should be a collective responsibility. Whilst managers may see it as a private issue for apartment owners, it only takes one apartment to set a whole building a light, as was the case in the Docklands fire, which then becomes an owners corporation issue.