Podcast: Two alarms over fire safety in apartments


This week the pod takes a deep dive into the murky waters of fire safety, how we ignore it at our considerable peril and how this essential part of our strata lives is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous contractors.

This discussion was prompted partly by the terrible fire in New York a couple of weeks ago when, it seems, doors left open during a relatively small fire allowed smoke to spread through the building, killing 17 people by asphyxiation.

And we were also drawn to a Forum discussion about how buildings can pass fire inspections for years, then suddenly find that a new company has discovered a raft of flaws.

And guess who’s ready to fix them (often at considerable expense).


On the topic of fires, we get a sneak preview of Sue’s upcoming biography of Dr Fiona Wood, who invented spray-on skin which is extensively used on burns victims.

We also look at conflicting advice between Fair Trading and the Department of Planning on who is allowed to let their apartments on Airbnb and Stayz etc, and when.

And we try to get to the bottom of how some properties are exempt from having to put a short-term letting registration number on their listings.

All that, and more on the Flat Chat Wrap.

If you enjoyed listening to this podcast (or reading the transcript), please share it with your friends using the social media buttons on this page.

 Jimmy  00:00

We’re going back a couple of weeks today on the podcast, because there’s a story that we hadn’t really addressed, in full. I mentioned it in passing in last week’s forum on the website. It’s about the fire on January 9 or 10th, in the Bronx, in New York.

Sue  00:20

Oh yes, that was horrible.

Jimmy  00:23

So, we’re going to talk about that and, we’re going to talk about fire safety (in general), in Australian apartments. And, we’re going to have a look at some confusing stuff about Airbnb, so that’s a lot to talk about… We better get on with it. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.

Sue  00:46

And I’m Sue Williams and I write about property for Domain.

Jimmy  00:48

And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.



Okay, that terrible fire in the Bronx… I think the latest figure is 17 deaths, including 8 children.

Sue  01:13

Oh, how horrible!

Jimmy  01:14

The terrible thing about it is that it seems like most of the people died from smoke inhalation. This is an old building; 19 stories. All the fire escapes are internal. You know, in a lot of these New York apartment blocks (the older ones), you see the fire escape is on the outside and that’s the city regulations, but apparently, this was a federal building, so they didn’t have to abide by city ordinances and so, all the fire escapes are internal. It sounds like smoke from a fire on the second floor, just went straight up into the fire escapes and…

Sue  01:57

Oh, how horrible! So, people had no way of getting out?

Jimmy  01:59

No, I mean, some were rescued by getting out the windows with fire trucks with ladders, but even the firemen (and women), who were going into the building; it was so bad, they were running out of oxygen, as they went in to try and rescue people

Sue  02:15

Because it kind of sealed all the smoke inside.

Jimmy  02:18

It kind of just acted like big chimneys and there’s been some accusations of victim -blaming, but it sounds like the fire started in the bedroom with a space heater that malfunctioned. The parent in that apartment, grabbed his kids and ran out and the door to the apartment didn’t shut behind him.

Sue  02:41

It wasn’t a proper fire door, because most fire doors have to swing shut, don’t they?

Jimmy  02:45

Well, we have them on all our apartments; they have that big sort of spring thing attached, which pushes the door closed and if they’re not adjusted properly, the door just slams. A lot of people either adjust them to not slam, or disconnect them completely. I think it’s totally wrong to say that this is victim-blaming, because I don’t think it’s the residents fault. If his door isn’t working properly, then the people managing the building, should be on that.

Sue  03:18

And besides, there was a fire a few days before; do you remember the one in Philadelphia? That was what they call a ‘row house,’ which I guess is a terrace house. It had been divided into two apartments and they think that was started by a little five- year-old kid, playing with a lighter. He set light to a Christmas tree and then the fire spread throughout the building. Even if the fire was; (it was an accident, obviously,) but it was lit by misadventure, you still have to say, well, why didn’t anything happen in that building to stop that fire? I mean, in that case, it was obviously different, because it was only a two apartment building, but there they discovered that all the battery-operated fire alarms had been disconnected. Only one in the whole building worked, the others had all been disconnected, or their batteries had been taken out. That’s the reason that so many people in that one died as well;  I think that 12 people died in that one, including 8 children, which is horrendous, so we have to look at those fire safety regulations and look at how these battery-operated fire alarms work.

Jimmy  04:27

The regulations are there and what we constantly get on the Flat Chat forum is people saying ‘my smoke detector has started beeping,’ and that’s a signal that it needs to have a new battery and then it’s ‘well whose responsibility is this? Is it the Owners Corporation, or is it the individual apartment owner?’ There’s a grey area in there, because apparently, if the fire alarms are interconnected and connect back to a power board in the building, then they are Owners Corporation responsibility, but if they’re individual for each apartment (and isolated), then they are the apartment owners’ responsibility. If you are a tenant, then you’ve got to get either the Owners Corporation or the apartment owner to come and put new batteries in the fire alarm. Then there is human nature… We know a building manager who said they were doing an inspection in an apartment once, and they went in and they found the smoke alarms had been wrapped in clingfilm, with cloth over them and when they started taking them off, the woman in the house was shouting at them. “No, don’t do that, because every time I cook, the smoke alarms go off and they beep,” which could be a problem with over -sensitivity of the smoke alarms. Or wrong placement as well. And it could be the kind of food that she was cooking. I don’t know if you remember, but a couple of years ago, there was somebody in our building… A traditional Filipino Christmas food is sword fish. Anyway, it’s cooked by dropping it in hot fat and there’s always a lot of smoke and steam and smell. This resident didn’t realise how much this was going to stink the place out. I mean, people were walking through the foyer of the building going “oh, my god! What is that smell?” The poor woman was deeply embarrassed.

Sue  06:35

Did it set the alarms off?

Jimmy  06:36

I think it did in her apartment, yes.That’s the thing; I mean, smoke alarms are so tricky, because if they get a little bit of dust on them, that can make them really hypersensitive to any additional smoke and things like that. Sometimes, cheap ones are put in by developers. Sometimes, the wrong kind are put in. A small domestic one is very different from a big commercial-sized one, but the big commercial-sized one might be cheaper for the developer to buy. So, you’ve got all these issues.

Sue  07:08

And, some building management companies probably don’t check them regularly. I mean, say in our building, we have regular checks.

Jimmy  07:15

We are going to talk about fire checks later on. Let’s talk about this open door thing, because we have the fire checks done here and it used to be that whoever they were (the company that came around); the first thing they do is tighten up the automatic closure mechanism, to make it as strong as it possibly could be, so every time anybody in the building let go of their door, it just slammed. These fire people were going “well, you know, it’s got to be maximum safety.” Of course, what was happening was that after them, people were just…

Sue  07:51

Dismantling the whole thing.

Jimmy  07:51

Getting their spare hexagonal keys from their last IKEA purchase, and loosening them up, and possibly in some cases, too much. Some people, who didn’t realise they could even adjust the strength, thought “we’re just disconnecting them.” So, the whole principle of doing the fire checks, was pretty much undermined by people making their doors less safe, rather than more safe. It’s not bad now; I’ve got to say that the guys who come and do the fire checks now, are pretty reasonable, but I do remember several times, having to adjust the door closure. Here’s a question for you… How often have you walked past a fire door that’s been propped open?

Sue  07:52


Jimmy  07:55

Like, a little wedge under the door and a sign… Usually with a sign on the door that says ‘do not prop this door open.’ Now, here’s my question for you, Sue… How often have you said “this is dangerous; I’m going to remove that wedge?”

Sue  08:56

I have done that occasionally.

Jimmy  08:57

Have you?

Sue  08:58

 Yes, I have, but I’ve always felt a little bit guilty when I’ve done it, because I thought well maybe, there’s somebody in the fire stairs, and now they’re going to be trapped in there and they have to walk down 15 flights or whatever, to be able to get out again at the end. Yes, I have done it before, especially if I’ve walked past it twice maybe; you know, in a couple of hours, and it’s still propped open.  I mean, the reasons that people prop them open… Well, there can be lots of reasons. They might be using the fire stairs to be able to get entrance to different apartments, on different levels. Or, they might want some more air in their own apartment, so they leave their front door open and then open the fire door, so they can get some extra air in.

Jimmy  09:39

Even their own front door is a fire safety door.

Sue  09:42

Yes, that’s right, so that shouldn’t be propped open, either. Sometimes, people leave rubbish there, because they’re going to pick it up later on and they think it’s out of sight, out of mind. There are lots of different reasons, but none of them (obviously), really valid.

Jimmy  10:01

It’s that ‘it can’t happen here’ attitude; you know “it won’t happen to me.” I’m sure the people in the apartment block in the Bronx never thought that anything like that would ever happen to them. I think it sounds like (I mean, they’re still investigating it)…. It sounds like a combination of the apartment door where the fire had started, being left open when the man escaped, and the fire door to the internal fire escape stairs had been left open, also. There’s your perfect storm and of course, heat will pull the smoke up into the fire well. It’s really unfortunate, but just to leave two doors open, suddenly makes the whole building really, really vulnerable.

Sue  10:52

Hopefully, people will start looking at their own fire security systems as a result. I mean, we had the Grenfell disaster in London and now we’re (hopefully), stripping off combustible cladding off of most of our apartment buildings. Hopefully, now this might prompt a look at our fire safety systems and how we use them.

Jimmy  11:14

I doubt it. I mean, I think people are just focused on the cladding thing. Obviously, that is quite an interesting and spectacular thing, when you see fire racing up the outside of buildings. We’ve had two cladding fires in Australia, in apartment blocks… Well, not in apartment blocks; on the outside of apartment blocks. Because our apartment blocks all have fire sprinklers and fire exit stairwells, I think the only person who was hurt was in the first one, in the LaCrosse building. Somebody tripped and sprained their ankle as they were trying to escape. Because the fire was contained to the outside of the buildings, it looked awful and did a lot of damage, but it didn’t actually hurt anyone, because of all the other fire safety measures that were in place. The Grenfell Tower; the problem there was that there was inadequate fire safety,  there were no sprinklers inside the building and everybody was told that in the event of a fire, stay in your flat, because you’ll be safe. It turned out to be spectacularly wrong. I do get a lot of people write into the forum saying ‘oh, I’m being expected to pay for the replacement of my smoke alarm batteries and I think somebody else should be paying for it,’ and you’re thinking ‘this is about fire and safety and how about, you just change the batteries!’

Sue  12:40

We can become a bit too much of a nanny state, can’t we, really? Take responsibility for your own safety!

Jimmy  12:45

Yes and change the batteries and then find out who should have paid for it and get the money back off them, if that applies.

Sue  12:51

It’s interesting when you say that the advice was to stay in your own apartment, and that that’s what really caused so many deaths, because I’ve just actually finished a new book about… It’s kind of all about burns and fire and I was doing a study of the Piper Alpha disaster on the oil rig, just off the coast of Scotland. Many people died there when there was an explosion on the rig and gas escaped and it was just an horrendous time. So many people died, because they were told to stay within their accommodation, because it happened at night. Their accommodation on the rig was kind of like dorms, and they were all told to stay in their places. The only people who survived were people who ran out and ended up jumping in the water. They made their own decisions about fire safety and how they were going to survive. They were the only people who survived it. There’s been a lot of studies on plane crashes and things, saying who survives and who doesn’t and it’s always the people who take their lives in their own hands and make immediate decisions, and think ‘I’m going to do something and be proactive here.’ I know it’s a long stretch, but when you’re saying “buy the batteries yourself;” absolutely! If that’s the most minor thing you can do to safeguard your own life, then do it!

Jimmy  14:14

And for the people around you, because this fire in the Bronx was actually quite a minor fire, in terms of the amount of damage that it caused the property.

Sue  14:24

But the cost of life was enormous.

Jimmy  14:27

Because some of these fire safety things had been bypassed.

Sue  14:31

And we are doing some things about fire safety here, as well. You know, like the old building at Tamarama; the old Glenview building that’s been fabulously reconstructed and they’ve got penthouses on the top, to pay for the renovations at the bottom…

Jimmy  14:48

Until David Chandler put a stop-work…

Sue  14:48

David Chandler put a stop-work, because of fire-safety concerns. At the time it was built, and when it started to be renovated, you only had to put sprinklers in certain places in the building; common property areas and things like that. Whereas, the new regulations meant that fire sprinklers should be in every apartment and David Chandler stopped work on the buildings, because he was saying “you’re not up to date with the new fire sprinkler regulations.” The people redeveloping the building were saying “well, we’re doing it in accordance with the regulations when we started,” and he was saying “no, you have to do it in accordance with the regulations now.” That became a bit of a battle. We are paying a bit more attention to fire safety as well, I think.

Jimmy  15:32

I’m on his side on this, because okay, technically, maybe you could say this is when we started and we’re renovating on that basis, but the reason the fire regulations have changed, is to make buildings safer… Safer right now. That’s why he’s saying “get it fixed.”

Sue  15:54

I guess it’s hard; you know, you start off with a scope of work and everything goes along, according to that and you don’t want to stop in the middle and say “well, things have changed…Let’s change everything.” I think the cost of the works of the building blew out extraordinarily anyway. They didn’t want them to become even more expensive, but you’re right, really.

Jimmy  16:16

Fire safety is important and speaking also to developers here, if you’re penny-pinching on your fire safety in your apartments, you’re putting people’s lives at risk and you should think about that. When we come back, we’re going to talk about fire inspections, and who does them and who fixes them, when things are found to be wrong. That’s after this.



We were talking earlier about fire inspections and a recurring theme coming up in the Flat Chat forum is apartment blocks that have been going along getting fire inspections done and everything is okay and then suddenly, either they get a new company coming to do the fire inspections, or the company that has been doing it changes its philosophy and they come in and having found no problems with fire safety for years, suddenly find lots of problems that need to be fixed. Guess who does the fixing?

Sue  17:19

The building?

Jimmy  17:20


Sue  17:20

The individual?

Jimmy  17:21

 The fire safety people are the ones who actually come and do the repairs.

Sue  17:25

Oh, I see; so it’s in their interest to find problems?

Jimmy  17:28

Well, this is the theory. I don’t know what you can do about that, because I can imagine why the inspectors find problems, that they never found before, because as we were talking about earlier, regulations change, and companies change.

Sue  17:45

And personnel change, too.

Jimmy  17:47

Yes, but it is a bit dodgy to suddenly find that a building that you thought was perfectly safe, now has all these problems and the people who have found the problems, are also the people who are saying “well, we’re here and we have the equipment; shall we just fix it?” They’re not going to do it for free.

Sue  18:04

So, you’re saying maybe, you should have two companies; one who comes and inspects and then one who fixes?

Jimmy  18:09

Yes, I think they should actually bring in a regulation that says if a company finds more than a certain level of problems in a building, they should report it and the Owners Corporation have to fix it, but it shouldn’t be the same company that does the fix.

Sue  18:24

That makes perfect sense. With the fire service, are there experts there who could come out; independent experts who could come out and look at apartment buildings, or is it a much more specialised job?

Jimmy  18:38

It’s a specialised job and there are companies where, that’s their business; all they do is fire safety. I’m sure there are consultants who could come along and say “this inspection is correct, or they’re wrong here.” It’s a risky thing, where you’ve got somebody who’s come in and said “okay, the previous fire inspections have been too slack. You need to do X, Y and Z, to fix this building.” Then, you get a fire safety consultant who comes in and says “oh, well, actually, you also need to do A, B and C.” Again, as we were saying before, the most important aspect of this is not the cost…It is the fire safety. The argument that fire safety in our building has been adequate in the past, is based on the premise for most buildings… They’ve never had a fire, so therefore, their fire safety hasn’t really been tested. I mean, in a real situation, with a fire in the building. I just think it’s one of these things where you shouldn’t scrimp on it, which makes it absolutely rife for exploitation by people who are experts, who can give you the Rolls Royce solution for a Toyota Corolla problem. Is it possible to be too safe? Okay, if you were a chair of a committee and somebody came along and said ‘hey, we’ve just taken over the fire safety company, and we’ve done an inspection and the previous inspections have been really slack;” what would you do?

Sue  20:08

And, the solution is incredibly expensive and would involve perhaps…

Jimmy  20:12

It will have an expense; let’s say significantly expensive…

Sue  20:17

Okay and if we looked and felt that it was already adequate (or that it was, as you say, a Rolls Royce solution), maybe we’d get another person in to have a look, another expert to give us some advice about whether they think that company’s assessment is right, or whether they think it’s excessive.

Jimmy  20:35

So, that’s another expense. This expert isn’t going to do that for nothing.

Sue  20:39

Yes, but if you’re looking at a cost of $5 million, then paying an expert $1,000 to come in and assess it, is probably small-fry.

Jimmy  20:49

One of the things that came up in the forum was (and a couple of people mentioned this); apparently, every door (or, certainly every fire door), has to have a kind of label on it, that says when the door was manufactured, and when it’s…

Sue  21:03

When it was last inspected?

Jimmy  21:05

Yes and these fire safety people came in and said “none of your doors have this.” They said “alright, we’ll pay to have that label; that tag, put on the door.” Then they looked at the tag, and the tag said ‘this door was built in 2022,’ because that’s when the tag was made.

Sue  21:26

That’s a bit bizarre, isn’t it?

Jimmy  21:28

They couldn’t retrofit old tags. They could identify roughly when the building was built, in a lot of cases, because they knew when it was built, and that’s when the doors were put in, but having insisted on this tag (which the law says the doors must have), then they put in a tag that’s not correct. It’s things like that, that annoy people. They think ‘well, we’ve just been ripped off here.’

Sue  21:54

Because that gives you no information, whatsoever. I mean, if there were a fire, and you were looking up to see when the doors were made, and what they were made of, and how likely they would be to explode, then that’s no help whatsoever, is it?

Jimmy  22:09

And I’m always reminded of the story somebody told me, about being called to a relatively new building. It was about five or six years old, and they were taken to see the fire safety; the water pumps and things. “What do you think of this?” “Oh, it looks fine; it all looks good,” and then the person who called them there said “turn that tap…” There is no water in it.

Sue  22:30

It had never been connected!

Jimmy  22:31

It had never been connected to the water and had been inspected four times a year, for five years.

Sue  22:36

 Wow! And nobody had thought to turn it on?

Jimmy  22:38

Nobody had ever turned on a tap to see if there was water in the system. You know, these things are not flawless, that’s for sure.

Sue  22:47

It’s hard whenever there’s kids involved as well. You kind of have to be really, really careful, because you just never know with children. They get fire safety lessons in schools, but as part of this book, I talked to this guy, who, when he was five years old, he was playing with matches in his bedroom, and he burned down his parents brand new house; the whole house went up. Three years later, at the age of eight, he was still obsessed by fire. He lit another fire just outside the house, and pushed a fuel drum onto it and the fuel drum exploded and he was left with 80% burns to his body.

Jimmy  23:27

Can you tell us this book you’re writing; what’s it about?

Sue  23:31

It’s a biography of the burn surgeon Fiona Wood, who invented spray-on-skin. As part of that, I’ve been talking to lots of her burn’s patients and this guy was amazing. He’s now got a son of his own. You know, he just about survived… For weeks and months, it was a battle to see if he would live or if he’d die. He was saying that he doesn’t actually have to teach his son about fire safety now, because his son can just look at his father’s body… It’s a network of spider webs of scars. You know, it’s quite incredible, really. He was saying that for all kids; at some point, they should be taken to a burns unit, or former burns patients should actually talk to kids about the dangers of fire, because when you’re a kid, parents saying “don’t play with matches,” means nothing to you, but if you can see the actual results of a fire, that can really deter kids, very early on.

Jimmy  24:25

And when’s the book coming out?

Sue  24:26

I think it comes out in September/October. Fiona Wood became really well known, particularly after the Bali bombings and this year is the 20th anniversary of the bombings, in October, so it’s coming out for that.

Jimmy  24:40

So keep your eye open for that, folks!

Sue  24:42

Sorry, I didn’t mean this to be an advert for the book.

Jimmy  24:45

I invited you to!

Sue  24:45

I’m really interested in fire at the moment.

Jimmy  24:47

As long as you don’t start setting little fires in the apartment, I’ll be fine. When we come back, we’re going to talk briefly about Airbnb and the New South Wales registry and stuff related to that.



Once again, people have been writing to the forum; that somebody has been writing about an apartment at his building where the tenants are away and the letting agent has been putting it on Airbnb, or Stayz, or something like that. They’ve been putting out on holiday lets, while the tenant isn’t there, and using the excuse that because it’s somebody’s principal place of residence, they are allowed to let it.

Sue  25:35

How extraordinary!

Jimmy  25:36

Yes, so I thought (as I often do), I’d dig into how this all works. Now, in New South Wales, Owners Corporations can choose not to have holiday rentals in their buildings in Greater Sydney. In Byron Bay and Muswellbrook, they can limit it to 180 nights a year, so I’ve been digging around. One of the things I do know is that if you’re doing holiday lets in New South Wales, you have to register the premises with the short-term letting register. You get a number, and then the internet platform, like Airbnb or Stayz has to list that registration number. I thought “alright, I’ll check this out,” because the person who was writing to me was saying “how do I find out if this place is being let legally or not?” I said “well, you go on the website and see if there’s a registration number.” So, I went on Airbnb and looked at two apartments (really nice apartments), just across the water in Mosman. I looked for the registration number and it said ‘exempt.’

Sue  25:41

What does that mean?

Jimmy  26:43

I don’t know and I’ve checked all the legislation and all the fact sheets and stuff like that on the Fair Trading website. Here’s the problem… You’ve got two body’s managing this; you’ve got Fair Trading, and you’ve got Planning. They each have information pages about Airbnb.

Sue  27:04

And are they the same?

Jimmy  27:05

No. Like, for instance, the Fair Trading website says that you’re exempt from some of the regulations, if you’re hosting a place that’s your principal place of residence. That only requires you to live there most of the time, so if you go away on holiday, you can let it out, even though your apartment block may have a bylaw saying that you’re not allowed to. Then you go to the Planning website and it says “oh, if you’re doing a hosted let,” (which is what this is), “you have to be in situ; you have to be there.” The only exemption is if you are living on the same property. If you’ve got a house with a granny flat at the back, you don’t actually have to be living in the granny flat to qualify as a ‘hosted.’

Sue  27:56

Oh right, you can just live in the main house?

Jimmy  27:58

It’s so confusing and the fact that it’s two government bodies that are running it, just adds to the confusion.

Sue  28:08

And maybe that’s what the exemption means; maybe it’s like a granny flat in the garden.

Jimmy  28:12

Maybe; I don’t know. But it’s very hard to pin these things and nobody’s checking it. I mean, let’s be honest, when we were talking recently about Noosa; they’re going to have that hotline that you can call when there’s a problem. There’s nothing like that; there’s all these regulations, in all these factsheets, some of which are contradictory, or ‘nuanced’ differently. There is nowhere that it says that ‘if you believe somebody is running an illegal Airbnb, here’s a number to call.’

Sue  28:42

So you’d have to go through the whole rigmarole of calling the New South Wales Government and then being diverted and trying to find where to go.

Jimmy  28:51

And I’ll bet in 75% of the cases, you’ll call up Planning, and they’ll say “oh, this is a Fair Trading thing,” and then you’ll call up Fair Trading and they’ll say “this is a Planning thing.” There’s a lot to be sorted out in all this and now’s the time to do it, because we don’t have the tourists here, but it won’t be long before they all come back, hopefully, and people can travel freely. Now would be the time to sort all this out. I think the problem is that the people who should be sorting it out are saying “let’s take advantage of there not being any pressure to do anything.” Okay, Sue, thank you very much.

Sue  29:27

Pleasure, Jimmy.

Jimmy  29:28

And thank you all for listening and we’ll talk again soon. Bye.



Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website flatchat.com.au If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite pod catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe, and you’ll get this podcast every week, without even trying. Thanks again; talk to you again next week.

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