by Adam Bello
Following a year of fire tragedies that claimed 33 lives, Deputy Chief Terry Boyko, Toronto Fire Services, says sweeping action must be taken by the apartment building community to ensure that required smoke alarms are present and functional in every tenant’s residence.
In an exclusive interview with SkyViews, Boyko says landlord and property managers need to address the issues as crisis managers, by planning and performing acts of prevention before fires occur. Undertaking simple acts of maintenance on a routine basis significantly decreases fire incidents, saving money and, more importantly, saving lives.
“Most of the time, a death or injury resulting from an apartment building fire is generally because the smoke alarm was not functioning as it was supposed to.,” Says Boyko, the Fire Services’ authority on high rise incidents. “It”s disheartening because many of these situations could have been avoided if there had been regular upkeep and tenant education on the smoke alarm’s operation.”
“Keeping smoke alarms in good working order increases the chances to contain the fire with the minimal amount of damage. Further, it prevents the occurrence of false alarms, saving building owners substantial fees in penalties charged by may municipalities, which conserving our staff and resources for real emergencies.” According to Boyko, landlords have the following responsibilities to tenants under the Ontario Fire Code (OFC) for the upkeep of smoke alarms:
Provide smoke alarms to each tenant residence ( a minimum of one located in between sleeping areas and the remainder of the living quarters).
Provide maintenance instructions for the smoke alarm to the incoming or present tenant.
Provide regular maintenance of smoke alarms that are triggered by minor cooking or non-hazardous everyday activities that generate heat and smoke.
Provide regular maintenance of smoke alarms for optimum performance.
Meet tenant requests to replace or reposition smoke alarms that are triggered by minor cooking or non-hazardous everyday activities that generate heat and smoke.
Provide emergency instructions from the approved fire safety plan.
Tenants also have responsibilities under the OFC for the proper working order of smoke alarm(s) in their apartment. They must:
Report the status of smoke alarms, including non-functioning or malfunctioning alarms.
Not tamper, disable, or remove smoke alarms from premises.
Not tamper or remove batteries from smoke alarms.
Should a landlord find that a tenant has disabled a smoke alarm, it is recommended that they contact their local fire prevention office and ask for an inspector to attend to the situation. If a tenant has impaired the use of their smoke alarm(s), the act can be considered a chargeable offense, with up to $25,000 in fines at the discretion of the judge or justice, as outlined in Part 3 of the Provincial Offenses Act.
“Smoke alarm tampering can be a significant problem for landlords if tenants do not communicate maintenance issues and take matters into their own hands. I would like to see the OFC be improved upon to place more responsibility on tenants, once they have received the equipment and information from building management. This is why it is so important to take the initiative through communication and action.”
Boyco says, “Apartment building management can begin the fire safety process by developing action plans for 1) scheduled maintenance and 2) emergency preparedness of tenants, working from the building’s fire safety plan developed by building owners and approved by Fire Services.”
Schedule regular inspection periods during the year to test smoke alarms in every apartment, with a checklist of requirements. For example, testing and battery replacement by landlords or qualified building staff can be scheduled to coincide with changes in daylight savings time.
Include vacuuming of the smoke alarm’s passages as part of the inspection process. Encourage tenants to vacuum the alarm when performing household cleaning. After any renovation work has been completed in the apartment, perform an inspection of the smoke alarm as a standard procedure. Boyko says the construction tends to add additional dust and air born particles that can clog or obstruct smoke alarm passage ways.
Keep accurate records of inspections and tenant requests for smoke alarm maintenance, including purchase and installation dates of batteries for its operation. In the event of a fire, this will help prove management upheld its maintenance requirements. Documentation of any tenant tampering issues should also be included to show management’s due diligence.
Turning to education, Boyko says landlords must outline to tenants their role in fire prevention. Upon assuming occupancy, provide tenants with the smoke alarm’s instruction manual,and understanding of its general maintenance needs,and to report malfunctions immediately. Stress that smoke alarms operate independently of any general smoke detectors systems in the building, and should not be disabled in any way.
For emergency preparedness, teaching tenants how to react in the event of a fire is critical for survival. “Smoke alarms are not enough. If there is a fire, you have to be able to determine on the spot whether to stay or leave. Tenants must be instructed on how to prepare a basic fire emergency kit. It should include 1)a towel for soaking to lay at the threshold of the door and 2) a roll of duct tape to seal doorjambs and vents, to keep out smoke, 3) a flashlight in case of power failure, 4) a whistle to draw the attention of firefighters, and 5) a bright coloured piece of cloth to hang out the window to identify which apartment has persons inside. In addition, tenants may consider having a heavy woolen bedspread or carpet that can be soaked in the bathtub and placed against the heat source, retarding the movement of flames.
If exiting the apartment, tenants should proceed toward ground level - not the rooftop. Staying closer to the floor when leaving will provide fresher oxygen to breath. It will be cooler and visibility will be better.
Examining viable options above Ontario Fire Code requirements, Boyko says the installation of sprinkler systems in high rise apartment buildings dramatically reduces the impact of damage and facilities.
“Frankly, I’m, jealous of Fire Services in Vancouver. They did not report any fire deaths in 1999, and a major contributing factor is because the installation of sprinkler systems in apartment buildings there is mandatory.” “The perception of many building owners is that sprinklers cost exorbitant amounts of money and cause considerable water damage. But when a fire happens, sprinklers end up stopping a greater amount of damage. They can save lives and reduce costs, what reason is there not to have them installed?”
Another benefit, Boyko adds, is that installing a sprinkler system tends to reduce the insurance premiums of the apartment building, as indicated in Vancouver.
In aiding high rise owners to undertake outreach with staff and tenants, Boyko says Fire Services could make presentations to either audience, if sufficient interested was demonstrated. “Most Fire Services through out the province would jump at the opportunity to provide information to property managers to help in our mutual goals for prevention. However, we need firm numbers in tenants who would attend, or that a group of apartment managers are requesting a seminar.
“Boyko adds that Fire Services’ offices have information resources available to better develop landlord-tenant action plans. Resource materials are available through the office of the Ontario Fire Marshall, including its ‘stay or go’ policy, as well as its web site (http://www.gov.on.ca/OFM/). Boyko says an upcoming opportunity for property managers and owners to open a dialogue with firefighting officials will be the seminar Building the Interface: Public-Private Sector Initiatives, May 15-17. Hosted by the City of Toronto, the International seminar will focus on how emergency services and industry can work together at high rise incidents. Presenters will be a cross section of experts from Fire Services, as well as building construction and management professionals.