Most of the aged care facilities in NSW that are without an automatic sprinkler system have begun projects to retrofit sprinklers, according to results published by the NSW Government on Tuesday.
While government and industry say they are working together to meet community expectations, NSW aged care peak bodies have expressed concerns over the short timeframe facilities have to install the sprinkler systems and have questioned how some will fund the projects.
Laws making automatic fire sprinklers mandatory in all NSW residential aged care facilities took effect in January last year following a fatal fire at a Domain Principal Group facility in Quakers Hill in November 2011.
Of the 885 nationally Commonwealth-accredited aged care facilities registered with the State Government, almost half have fully-fitted fire sprinkler systems, 129 facilities nominated to complete installation by September 2014, and the remaining 358 committed to have their systems in place by March 2016.
According to the September 2013 implementation plans, 78 per cent of facilities that nominated a March 2016 deadline have commenced retrofitting sprinklers, the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure reported on Tuesday.
“It is encouraging to see that the majority of nursing homes which are not already fitted with fire sprinkler systems have started down the path of safer housing for their elderly residents,” said Planning and Infrastructure Minister Brad Hazzard.
Aged care facilities committed to retrofitting fire sprinklers by September this year are not required to produce an implementation report.
“These facilities are making solid progress – and instead of requiring paperwork, we are working closely with them to help them meet their implementation deadline,” Mr Hazzard said.
Leading Age Services Australia NSW-ACT CEO Charles Wurf said many providers had overcome significant challenges to ensure their facilities met the NSW Government’s timetable.
“There are some providers, often those with smaller facilities and in regional communities with localised issues, who continue to struggle with the retrofitting of sprinklers,” Mr Wurf said.
“It is important that government understands that in these instances support will be required to enable these facilities to remain open and to continue to provide care.”
Similarly, Aged & Community Services Association of NSW & ACT CEO Illana Halliday said some facilities were struggling to meet the implementation timetable.
Ms Halliday said she was urging those providers committed to the first deadline to be realistic and apply for an extension if there was a chance they might need it.
“I know the timeline is legislated but it is still ambitious and quite a number of facilities are still grappling with it,” she said. “My members are telling me when they go out to tender it is taking longer to get prices back than expected and some are having difficulty getting more than one person to respond.
“If they can’t meet the 1 September deadline, then they should seriously consider applying for a postponement immediately. They can’t do it after 1 March and that is only six weeks away,” she said.
Extensions of up to six months are available for eligible facilities committed to a 1 September 2014 installation but they must apply by 1 March 2014. Eligible facilities wishing to postpone their 1 March 2016 completion date by up to a year need to apply by 1 March 2015. See postponement information for more details including extension criteria.
As well as the timeframe issue, both peak bodies raised concerns about the costs involved in retrofitting sprinkler systems, which must be met by facilities. In particular, they highlighted recent changes to the “Significant Refurbishment” definition in the Commonwealth’s latest guidelines for the higher accommodation supplement.
“There are some facilities, whether they are on the 18-month [September 2014] or three-year [March 2016] deadline, that have gone out to get indicative reports on cost and they just can’t afford it and are now exploring ways to pay for it,” Ms Halliday said.
One hope industry had to fund their sprinkler programs was to add it to the cost of other improvement works in the same period and apply for the higher accommodation supplement that comes with a significant refurbishment, she said.
“But the Federal Government is now saying you can only include a third of the cost of doing a retrofit of sprinklers in your total costs toward the overall cost of a refurbishment.”
Ms Halliday said the sector had no indication before the draft guidelines were released on Christmas Eve that the change was coming. “It’s unfair and we are going to fight it big time,” she said.
Likewise, Mr Wurf said industry would continue to pursue the significant refurbishment and other funding issues with both the New South Wales and Commonwealth Governments.
To find out a facility’s sprinkler status, you can search the September 2013 Fire Sprinkler Systems Implementation Reports by location, aged care provider or specific nursing homes or via an interactive map which allows users to click on house icons on a map of NSW to get information about each aged care facility.
A full report is not available online but a spokesperson for the NSW Department of Planning said the Fire Sprinkler Safety Implementation Committee would be producing its annual report in coming months and releasing more figures about the industry at that time.