Time to check your smoke alarms

In August 2016, the Queensland parliament passed new laws relating to smoke alarms. These laws will have an impact on community title schemes. The new laws specify that every Queensland residence will need to be fitted with photoelectric, interconnected smoke alarms in all bedrooms, as well as hallways.

All lots in a community titles scheme built or significantly renovated will need to comply with the smoke alarm legislation where completion of the build or renovation is after January 1, 2017. All lots in a community titles scheme leased or sold will need to comply with the legislation within five years and all owner-occupied private dwellings will need to comply with the legislation within 10 years.

Any smoke alarm being replaced after January 1, 2017 must be a photoelectric alarm. It is important to note that my office does not have jurisdiction for smoke alarms. For further information about alarms, visit the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services’ website

The introduction and forthcoming commencement of these new laws does, though, prompt me to provide some relevant guidance about smoke alarms as they relate to community title schemes. Under section 20 of the Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997 (the Act), in a high-rise/walk-up scheme established under what is known as a building format plan, the actual fire sensor is typically the responsibility of the individual lot owner if it is inside the lot boundaries.

The rest of the wired system is typically common property and thus, body corporate responsibility. So it may be that to comply with the new laws, an upgrade to the system might be required, with lot owners having to participate in a supply of service for the work inside their lot and the body corporate covering any of the common property components. Current systems may meet the requirements if already wired in.

In non-high-rise buildings, there may not be a whole building system. Replacement of older battery-type alarms is likely to be the responsibility of the individual lot owner, although a body corporate may be able to coordinate supply of services.

More generally, the issue of smoke alarms might raise some broader questions about responsibility for what it knows as utility infrastructure. Utility infrastructure is the pipes, cables, wires, sewers, drains, plant and equipment that supply a utility service to the lots or the common property in a community titles scheme. Utility services include:

  • water, gas or electricity supplies;
  • air conditioning;
  • telephone, data and television services; drainage;
  • waste disposal; and
  • sewer systems.

It can also be another system or service designed to benefit a lot or common property. The body corporate is usually responsible for utility infrastructure that is part of common property. If the utility infrastructure is not common property, the lot owner is generally responsible for maintaining it. All utility infrastructure in a community titles scheme is part of common property except for utility infrastructure that:

  • supplies a utility service to only one lot;
  • is within the boundaries of the lot; and
  • is not within a boundary structure for the lot.

A boundary structure for a lot in a scheme means a floor, wall or ceiling, other than a false ceiling, in which is located the boundary of the lot with another lot or common property. This definition applies to all schemes regardless of the plan of subdivision.

It is important to note that in the above three dot points, all three conditions must be met. In other words: if two of the conditions are met but not the third, then it cannot be utility infrastructure part of common property. When thinking about smoke alarms you should also consider what circumstances, give rise to a power of entry to a lot.

Section 163 of the act provides that a body corporate or its authorised person may, under some circumstances, exercise a power of entry to a lot. That authorised person might be, for example, a tradesperson or contractor required to undertake some work. The section goes on to outline the conditions applicable for entry to the lot. One of the circumstances for entry is in an emergency, in which case the entry may be exercised at any time and also without notice of the intended entry.

The act does not define an ‘emergency’ and I cannot comment on hypothetical situations. That said, issues around a smoke alarm may warrant consideration by a body corporate of whether they need to exercise a power of entry.

It may be prudent for a body corporate and indeed a lot owner to seek advice, such as legal advice, about their rights and responsibilities as they relate to the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms, both as they currently exist and as they might be under the new laws.

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