Building Legislation Amendment (Smoke Alarms) Bill

About this Item
SubjectsHousing; Safety and Standards; Fires
SpeakersBeamer Ms Diane; Humpherson Mr Andrew; Roberts Mr Anthony; Hopwood Mrs Judy
BusinessBill, First Reading, Second Reading, Motion

Page: 17104

Bill introduced and read a first time.

Second Reading

Ms DIANE BEAMER (Mulgoa—Minister for Juvenile Justice, Minister for Western Sydney, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Infrastructure and Planning (Planning Administration)) [6.24 p.m.]: I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

In 2004 New South Wales Fire Brigades attended 4,425 house fires across the State. Almost a third of these occurred during the winter months, when people are using fires, heaters and other electrical equipment. Usually we do not hear about most house fires—and that is largely because, thanks to the valiant efforts of our two fire services, the fires are controlled before they reach a catastrophic stage. Thankfully, the vast majority of people escape with their lives. However, there has been a tragic start to winter this year, with 13 people, including seven children, losing their lives in house fires in just over a fortnight in late May and early June. I am sure I speak for all honourable members when I extend the Parliament's sympathies to the families and friends of all these victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

In a bid to prevent more tragedies as a result of house fires, the Premier and my colleague the Minister for Emergency Services announced on 14 June that the Government would introduce new laws making it compulsory for smoke alarms to be installed in all existing homes and other buildings where people sleep. These include all homes, flats, boarding houses, motels, hotels, hostels, and manufactured and mobile homes in New South Wales. Under this bill, all of these dwellings must be fitted with either battery-operated or hard-wired smoke alarms by 1 May 2006. All rental properties will be covered by these amendments, and further regulations to be developed under the Conveyancing Act 1919 will require people selling their homes to state whether smoke alarms are installed.

These reforms will be part of a major fire safety campaign, developed with the expertise of our two fire service leaders—Commissioner Mullins from the New South Wales Fire Brigades and Commissioner Koperberg from the Rural Fire Service. This will include reinvigorated community education campaigns, new media advertisements and an expansion of the Fire Brigades Smoke Alarm Battery Replacement for the Elderly program[SABRE], to other at-risk groups, including people with disabilities and people from non-English speaking backgrounds. The statistics mount a compelling case that a smoke alarm can mean the difference between life and death. Fire Brigades figures show that in the decade to 1999-2000, 88 per cent of fire deaths occurred in dwellings with no smoke alarms.

Almost 59 per cent of deaths occurred between 9.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m., when people can reasonably be assumed to be asleep. The elderly have a disproportionately high fire death rate compared to the rest of the population, with those aged 65 years and older accounting for 25 per cent of the victims. Since around the mid-1990s it has been a requirement under the Building Code of Australia in New South Wales for all new homes and those undergoing major renovations to be fitted with hard-wired smoke alarms. Smoke alarms also have been installed in all 130,000 New South Wales public housing homes since 1996, and concerted community education campaigns by the fire services have encouraged all home owners and occupants to install smoke alarms.

As a result, it is estimated that the percentage of homes with smoke alarms installed has risen from 28 per cent in the early 1990s to approximately 73 per cent in 2004. While it is clear that the majority of people have heeded this vital fire safety message, today the Government is moving to speed up the installation of these devices by the remainder of the community. It is estimated that these amendments will apply to about 670,000 dwellings. We want to see 100 per cent of dwellings fitted with smoke alarms, and we believe that the package of measures we are introducing today will help to achieve that outcome. I urge families not to wait until the new laws take effect on 1 May next year but to buy and install a smoke alarm this week. They are relatively inexpensive—the battery-operated models retail for about $20 and are easy to install. It is a small investment when it could save an adult's or child's life.

The Building Legislation Amendment (Smoke Alarms) Bill will amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 to require the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms in all existing buildings in which people sleep in New South Wales. Specifically, schedule 1 to the bill inserts new section 146A into the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which will permit regulations to be made in respect of matters including the installation of one or more smoke alarms in buildings in which persons sleep, the type and location of smoke alarms to be installed, the maintenance of smoke alarms installed in such buildings, and the prohibition of persons removing or interfering with the operation of smoke alarms installed in such buildings. "Buildings" are defined to include existing buildings, manufactured homes and moveable dwellings.

It will be an offence for any person to contravene the provisions of the regulations, with a maximum penalty of five penalty units—$550—applying. This is comparable to both Victoria and South Australia, which require the installation of alarms in all residential properties and have penalties of a $750 fine, and five penalty units, respectively. In regard to enforcement, section 121B of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act permits a consent authority to issue an order against the owner of premises to ensure or promote the safety of persons in the event of fire. However, it is the Government's intent to promote compliance through a focus on community education, encouraging residents to install smoke alarms as a means of improving their home and family fire safety, rather than through the fear of sanction. As I outlined earlier, this will be assisted through community education programs, media advertisements and targeting of at-risk groups in the community. Specific campaigns will encourage people to change their smoke alarm batteries when they change their clocks for daylight saving.

The regulations will also specify the circumstances in which the consent of an owners' corporation is not required for the installation of a smoke alarm in a strata title unit. For instance, unit owners will not be required to obtain the consent of the owners' corporation to screw battery-operated alarms to their ceilings, although this is defined as common property. Schedule 2 inserts new section 29A into the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 to make it a term of every residential agreement that landlords are required to ensure smoke alarms are installed in residential accommodation, in accordance with new section 146A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. It also specifies that neither the landlord nor the tenant is to remove or interfere with the operation of the smoke alarm, unless they have a reasonable excuse. A failure by the landlord to have an operating smoke alarm in place at the start of the tenancy would constitute a breach of agreement and enable the tenant to apply to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal for an order against the landlord. The landlord would also be subject to a penalty under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

Schedule 2 to the bill also amends section 24 of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 to allow landlords access to their rented premises to install smoke alarms by giving the tenants at least two days notice. The bill also makes clear that these regulations will apply to existing tenancy agreements. New regulations will also be drafted under the Conveyancing Act 1919 requiring vendors selling residential property to disclose, without warranty, that smoke alarms are installed in the property. Discussions between the Fire Brigades and building officials about the drafting of the regulations to which I have referred are already well under way. This will enable consultation to take place at the earliest possible stage with relevant stakeholders, before the regulations' introduction.

As I said, these new requirements will take effect on 1 May 2006. However, the Government intends for the regulations to be drafted and communicated to the New South Wales public well before this date. I cannot stress strongly enough that the Government is today encouraging all householders not to wait for this legislative deadline but to act now. I appeal to every family in New South Wales to ensure they have taken basic precautions to ensure their homes are as fire safe as possible this winter. Please do not be complacent and think "It will never happen to me". It can and does, and a $20 smoke alarm could be the difference between saving your family's lives and utter tragedy. I commend the bill to the House.

Mr ANDREW HUMPHERSON (Davidson) [5.35 p.m.]: We have had a horror start to the winter fire season, a time of year when house fires are prevalent. Ten lives, seven of those children, have been lost in the past month, which is a very poor outcome at the beginning of winter. It is a pointer to the risks and a reminder that as a community we need to do more. As a consequence, two weeks ago the Opposition took the initiative of asking the Government to consider making smoke alarms mandatory in dwellings in New South Wales, as they are in Victoria. We are pleased that the Government embraced our proposal. We indicated that we would support the fast tracking of legislation before the end of this parliamentary session, and the Government responded to that and introduced this bill today. We will support and facilitate the passage of this bill through both Houses within the next few days, to ensure a regime is in place that makes the installation of smoke alarms mandatory in all dwellings in this State.

The requirement will be effective as at 1 May next year. However, we strongly encourage people to install fire alarms and to put in place a regime of protection in their homes as soon as possible. I express our sympathy to those who have lost relatives and friends in the recent fires. I think 13 lives have been lost so far this calendar year. I acknowledge the work of our firefighters in the fire services of New South Wales. Our volunteer and professional firefighters, full-time and part-time, do a terrific job. Sadly, in the case of fatal house fires they have to deal with the trauma of participating in searches and the recovery of remains. That is a traumatic experience for them. I was not surprised at all to see them supportive of these measures.

Both fire commissioners have indicated their support for these measures. I spoke to Fire Commissioner Mullins this morning. He was pleased with the bipartisan support that exists in relation to these proposals. The community needs to recognise that smoke alarms can make a difference. Studies have shown that half a minute can be the difference between life and death—the amount of time necessary to alert somebody to leave a dwelling and get out of harm's way, particularly away from the threat of smoke that can incapacitate people, particularly in domestic fires. Smoke alarms alert people to danger and the warning can make the difference between life and death. The Opposition will ensure the passage of this bill through both Houses of Parliament by the end of this week.

The Opposition understands that there are some elements of the legislation, particularly the regulations, that have not yet been finalised. The Government has given an assurance that the regulations will be provided to us as soon as they are drafted. We look forward to the opportunity of examining and commenting on them. However, it is important to have the legislation in place so that the laws come into force as soon as possible. The legislation, together with an education program, will ensure that homeowners are aware of their obligations. The legislation requires that all properties are fitted with a smoke detector at the time of sale or lease. The minimum requirement is the installation of one battery-powered smoke alarm, but I would encourage people to install more alarms in a number of areas of the home, particularly in large homes.

Although battery-powered smoke alarms are relatively inexpensive, for the long-term protection of lives hard-wired smoke detectors are a worthwhile investment. I understand the cost of hard wiring is in the order of $50 to $60 extra per smoke alarm. As has been said many times, people who are affected by a house fire do not think it will happen to them. Inevitably, some people, through no fault of their own, will have to deal with a house fire and often the fire will occur at an inopportune time, perhaps in the middle of the night.

According to a recent audit, 73 per cent of dwellings in New South Wales have smoke alarms. Some of those alarms may not be fully operational. In Victoria, where smoke alarms have been mandatory since 1999, 96 per cent of dwellings have smoke alarms. On face of it, this initiative will mean a substantial increase of something like 23 per cent in smoke alarms in dwellings in this State. The Coalition emphasises the need for an education program. The law will not apply only to property owners who sell or lease homes. All homes will require protection and homeowners will have to be alerted to their obligations, particularly under the new laws.

The Coalition encourages people not only to install smoke alarms but also to observe other safety practices. Smoke alarms are not the only way to protect lives. Other precautions can be taken. Clearly, smoke alarms need to be operational and batteries replaced regularly. When daylight saving ends and clocks are changed, smoke alarms should be tested and batteries replaced. Everyone, particularly children, should be aware of the sound of a smoke alarm. Often, the first time children hear a smoke alarm is when it wakes them up in the middle of the night. They should be made aware of the sound of a smoke alarm and educated about the steps to take when an alarm is activated. New South Wales Fire Brigades runs terrific educational programs for young children that show them how to drop to the floor and exit dwellings in the event of a fire. Children should also be taught an exit route from their homes.

All families should engage in fire drills, at least annually, and ensure that all family members know what to do in the event of a fire. Everyone should know how to exit and where to meet, for example at the letterbox. It has been suggested during this debate that an annual fire drill day be held, possibly at the beginning of winter, when families can review what to do in the event of a house fire. The school education system is a good means of disseminating information to children. Children, perhaps more than adults, are sensitive to the threat of house fires. Through school education they could be encouraged to ensure that their parents check the operation of smoke alarms in the home and observe their obligations under the law.

The insurance industry, which has a substantial stake in property protection, should examine its responsibilities and obligations in relation to the provision of smoke alarms, particularly in areas where there are low numbers of smoke alarms. In particular, the industry can look at ways of assisting residents in low-income areas who may have reservations about purchasing smoke alarms. The earlier an alarm is raised, the greater the prospect of less damage. Given the benefits to the industry, it should look at what it can do to support the community.

During a briefing today I asked that the Department of Fair Trading investigate whether all smoke alarms sold in New South Wales comply with Australian standards. We expect that the regulations will stipulate that all smoke alarms must meet Australian standards. I understood from the briefing that the Government believes that any smoke alarms that do not comply with the Australian standards should be withdrawn from sale. This bill is a legislative means of forcing property owners to install smoke alarms for the protection of their families and others. People should not wait for this legislation to be enacted. There are some cold winter months ahead and there is a real prospect of house fires occurring between now and 1 May next year, when smoke alarms will become mandatory. All property owners should comply with their duty of care to the occupants of their dwellings, their families and visitors by installing smoke alarms. If people in the community, particularly the elderly and the disabled, are unsure what to do, local fire services will assist them with installation and changing of batteries. There are no excuses. People should be aware of their responsibilities and live up to them. In the long term this initiative will save many lives.

Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS (Lane Cove) [6.47 p.m.]: It is with great pleasure that I support my colleague the honourable member for Davidson in this wonderful expression of bipartisanship. The Government has heeded the Opposition's call for the installation of smoke detectors and alarms to save lives in New South Wales. Currently, under the Building Code of Australia all new or renovated homes must be fitted with hard-wired smoke alarms. Under the proposed changes, which will come into force on 1 May 2006, all existing homes, flats, boarding houses, motels, hotels and hostels must be fitted with either battery-operated or hard-wired smoke alarms. Landlords will be required to fit smoke alarms in all rental accommodation. The Government has said that the cost of installing smoke alarms will be a tax deduction for investment property owners. That is a good incentive. All properties will have to be fitted with smoke alarms before they can be sold.

The changes will be effected by amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 and the Conveyancing Act 1919. It is important to inform the House that in many countries two types of smoke detectors are commonly available. I am grateful to the Uranium Information Centre for providing this information. One type of smoke detector uses the radiation from a small amount of radioactive material to detect the presence of smoke or heat sources. These ion chamber smoke detectors are the most popular because they are inexpensive and are sensitive to a wider range of fire conditions than the other type. The other type of detector does not contain radioactive material; it uses a photoelectric sensor to detect the change in light level caused by smoke. That type is more expensive to purchase and install and, according to fire services, is less effective. The vital ingredient of household smoke detectors is a small quantity of americium-241. As a matter of interest, that element was discovered in 1945 during the Manhattan Project in the United State of America. The first sample of americium was produced by bombarding plutonium with neutrons in a nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago.

Americium is a silvery material which tarnishes slowly in air and is soluble in acid. Its atomic number is 95. Its most stable isotope, Am-243, has a half life of over 7,500 years, although Am-241, with a half life of 432 years, was the first isotope to be isolated. Americium oxide, AMO2, was first offered for sale by the United States of America Atomic Energy Commission in 1962 and the price has remained constant since that time. Effectively, one gram of americium oxide provides enough active material for more than 5,000 household smoke detectors. Americium 241 emits alpha particles and low energy gamma rays. The alpha particles are absorbed within the detector, while most of the gamma rays escape harmlessly. The americium is present in oxide form in the detector.

The alpha particles emitted by the AM-241 collide with the oxygen and nitrogen in air in the detector's ionisation chamber to produce charged particles called ions. A low-level electric voltage applied across the chamber is used to collect these ions, causing a steady small electric current to flow between two electrodes. When smoke enters the space between the electrodes, the alpha radiation is absorbed by smoke particles. This causes the rate of ionisation of the air and, therefore, the electric current to fall, which sets off an alarm.

The alpha particles from the smoke detector do not themselves pose a health hazard, as they are absorbed in a few centimetres of air or by the structure of the detector. The radiation dose to the occupants of a house from a domestic smoke detector is essentially zero, and in any case very much less than that from natural background radiation. The small amount of radioactive material that is used in these detectors is certainly not a health hazard. On the other hand, the ability of domestic smoke detectors to save life and property has been demonstrated on numerous occasions in New South Wales and has contributed to the saving of many lives, most recently, in fact, a constituent of mine whose bedding caught fire through the use of a heat bag.

I join with the Minister and the honourable member for Davidson, the shadow Minister, in reflecting on the tragic nature of so many recent deaths in house fires—four in Wyong, three in Coonamble, two near Oberon and one in Corrimal. I support the promotion by the shadow minister of the compulsory installation of smoke detectors as a way of saving lives. It is amazing that in this day and age of regulation of everything from car modifications to smoking in bars smoke detectors are not compulsory in residential dwellings. As the shadow minister pointed out, education is a key component of this program. What better way to achieve that than by having our children taught in school about fire safety?

As the shadow Minister said, smoke detectors are not the only form of fire prevention in the home. I agree with his suggestion that children should be taught about making sure that heaters and appliances are turned off at night. Many homes in New South Wales, particularly those in older suburbs, still have old wiring. In many instances that wiring has not been replaced, or even looked at, for some time and for many residents it would be worthwhile having it looked at. The use—and in some cases abuse—of electric heaters is also relevant. In some instances bar heaters or fan heaters are left on at night while people are sleeping. It is important to stay warm, of course, but it is also important to educate people to make sure they do not leave clothing or other items near electric heaters.

Our hearts go out to those who have suffered as a result of so many unnecessary deaths. A smoke detector is an interesting and complex piece of machinery that is able to detect smoke and sound an alarm, alerting people to the fact that there is a fire in the home. As both the Minister and the shadow Minister have stated, smoke detectors are cheap; I believe a figure of $20 was referred to. When I was wandering through Bunnings Warehouse on the weekend, I noticed them for less than $20. However, I echo the concerns voiced by the shadow Minister—and this is undoubtedly a matter for the Department of Fair Trading—about overseas products. The department does a wonderful job, although it is sometimes overwhelmed. It is important for an investigation to be carried out to ensure that these important lifesaving devices are effective and comply with Australian standards. I hope the amendments in the bill mean that in the future we will not have to look at headlines and read media reports about so many young children losing their lives far too early.

Mrs JUDY HOPWOOD (Hornsby) [6.54 p.m.]: I am pleased to support the Building Legislation Amendment (Smoke Alarms) Bill, which amends the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 to provide for the installation of smoke alarms. Schedule 1 to the bill inserts proposed section 146A into the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which permits regulations to make provision for or with respect to the installation of one or more smoke alarms in buildings in which persons sleep, the maintenance of smoke alarms installed in such buildings, and prohibiting persons from removing or interfering with the operation of smoke alarms installed in such buildings.

Schedule 1 to the bill provides that regulations made under proposed section 146A may, without limitation, do any one or more of the following: specify the types of buildings in which smoke alarms are to be installed, specify the types of smoke alarms to be installed, specify where a smoke alarm is to be located, specify the maintenance that may be required in relation to a smoke alarm that has been installed, specify circumstances in which development consent under part 4 is not required in relation to the installation of a smoke alarm, and specify circumstances in which the consent of an owners corporation, within the meaning of the Strata Schemes Management Act 1996, is not required in relation to the installation of a smoke alarm. Schedule 1 to the bill also provides that a person must not contravene a provision of a regulation made under proposed section 146A and that, under this section, a "building" includes a manufactured home, a moveable dwelling or associated structure, and a building erected before the commencement of the section.

The bill also amends the Residential Tenancies Act to provide for a landlord's access to residential premises to install an alarm in the residential premises in accordance with a requirement under proposed section 146A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. A landlord will be able to carry out such work provided the tenant has been given not less than two days notice on each occasion. Schedule 2 to the bill inserts proposed section 29A, which provides that it will be a term of every residential tenancy agreement that the landlord is to ensure that smoke alarms are installed in accordance with Environmental Planning and Assessment Act if the relevant section requires them to be installed in the residential premises. It further provides that neither the landlord nor the tenant may, except with reasonable excuse, remove or interfere with the operation of a smoke alarm installed in the residential premises.

Honourable members on this side of the House support the Government's move to create a safer environment for people in their homes. This month 10 lives have been tragically lost in house fires, some of them very young lives. It is a tremendous human loss and we extend our sympathy to the families and friends of those who lost loved ones in those fires. The Coalition called upon the Government to act and the Government has responded to this tragedy and to the need to ensure that people are aware of the dangers in their homes if they do not have smoke detectors. I hope this amending legislation achieves its objective because battery-operated smoke alarms are not ideal. Smoke detectors should be hard wired and connected to each other, preferably causing the lights to come on when they are activated.

Electricians have made representations to members of the Coalition in that regard, but a battery-operated smoke alarm is better than no smoke alarm. It is to be hoped that in the future the Government will take further steps to make the hard wiring of smoke alarms mandatory. So far as the deadline of May 2006 is concerned, obviously it would have been possible to make hard-wired smoke alarms mandatory but, as I have said, a battery-operated alarm is better than nothing. I urge everyone without a smoke detector to have one installed as soon as possible. Recent media reports would undoubtedly have alerted everyone to the tragedy that can occur in the absence of smoke detectors.

I pay tribute to the volunteers and paid employees of our fire fighting services—the Rural Fire Service, New South Wales Fire Brigades and the State Emergency Service—for the tremendous job they do. As I said, the legislation should have bipartisan support, and home owners and occupiers need to be reminded of their obligations regarding the installation of smoke alarms. It is important that home owners install several smoke alarms in dwellings, so that if a fire occurs a person who may be sleeping on a separate level of the dwelling is alerted. It is also important that home owners test the smoke alarms regularly, and I take on board the shadow Minister's suggestions about when such testing should take place.

Other matters that need to be taken into account include the dangers of deadlocks, children, the elderly and incapacitated people being left alone, and the role an animal might play in causing a fire. For example, an animal may cause an inflammable item to fall onto a fire. The role of community fire units, the Rural Fire Service, New South Wales Fire Brigades, and the management of properties with regard to bushfires are important factors in ensuring the safety of our society. As has been said, fires may occur at the most inopportune times and many occur at night. The installation of smoke alarms will ensure that houses are rendered safer than they have been in the past. Education programs need to be put in place for occupiers of dwellings, and children need to be educated about recognising the sound of a smoke alarm and what they should do in the event of a fire.

We have a number of smoke alarms in our house. Occasionally when we toast food or cook on the stove, the smoke alarm goes off. It is important that children recognise the sound of a smoke alarm, so that if a fire occurs they know immediately what they have to do. It is also important that children know where to go in the event of a fire. It has happened that when a fire occurs one child goes out the back door and the rest of the family go out to the front of the house. It is then necessary for a parent or another adult to go back inside the house to try to find the missing child, and, sadly, lives are lost in that way. It is extremely important for everybody in the family to take part in a fire drill, so they know exactly where they need to assemble in the event of a fire—for example, at the letterbox at the front of the house, or wherever the family decides to meet.

With regard to fire awareness at home, the Opposition has suggested that schools need to play a leading role in fire safety and encourage children to help their families observe a yearly family fire drill. Children can play a major role in reminding their parents about the importance of fire safety at home. I am pleased that the Carr Government has responded to the Opposition's calls for urgent legislation on compulsory smoke alarms. It should be mandatory that people make their homes safer by purchasing smoke alarms and installing them in their homes immediately.

Ms DIANE BEAMER (Mulgoa—Minister for Juvenile Justice, Minister for Western Sydney, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Infrastructure and Planning (Planning Administration)) [6.03 p.m.], in reply: I thank Opposition members for their contributions to the debate and for their bipartisan support for the bill. It is extremely important that an education program is put in place with regard to the installation of smoke alarms. The Government is not wielding a big stick here, but at the same time we recognise that some people will not install smoke alarms unless mandatory regulations are in place. The issues that have been raised by the Opposition will be considered during the drafting of the regulations, and we will work with all the stakeholders to ensure that the regulations are implemented as soon as possible. I commend the bill to the House.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time and passed through remaining stages.