by Danny Iannuzziello
Over the past few months, dozens of landlords in the City of Niagara were called into court to answer violation charges for fire safety deficiencies on their multi-unit residential properties. The Niagara Falls Fire Services department has begun a blitz on properties, enforcing their zero tolerance policy as it relates to apartment buildings in the city. The big question is, which city is next?
As we know, fire safety is one of the most important issues in multi-unit residential properties. With proper attention to it, we should be able to avoid the hassles of being called up on violations, but more importantly, we can ensure a safe building for our tenants and protect our hard-earned investment dollars.
After talking with a few of the owners at the courthouse, it became clear how tight the fire safety enforcement had become. Niagara Fire Services is not only enforcing Zero Tolerance but doing so without adequate allowance of time to rectify any violations that were found in buildings. Most municipalities around the province typically provide 30 days to fix any deficiencies before being called into court, however in the case of Niagara Falls, no allowance was provided – it was literally straight to court on any deficiencies.
Some of the issues that were commonly raised included door closure timing, improper Fire Safety Plan box locations, fire separation barriers, equipment inspection logs, emergency lighting, and clear means of egress.
In one example, a landlord was charged with not having a clear path of egress because they had a garbage bin in their lobby – typically used for discarding junk mail from the tenant mailboxes. Having a small waste bin in the lobby was considered a blockage of the means of egress in the event of a fire, and the paper contained in the waste bins were deemed as combustible materials and a fire risk. Another example related to items blocking the means of egress in stairwells. One landlord was charged with having a tenant’s bicycle chained to a stairwell railing, which could obstruct the escape route for tenants.
Some landlords were also being charged for combustible materials – in the form of discarded furniture – being improperly placed in the waste disposal areas.Another example of violations related to automatic door closure timing. The Fire Protection and Prevention Act calls for automatic door closures to close within 12 seconds. Some owners of apartment buildings were called into the courthouse for door closures that closed in between 15-20 seconds. The notion of “Hey, it’s close enough” doesn’t apply with fire safety and door closure timing. On your next building inspection, I’d recommend bringing a stopwatch.
One by one the landlords at the courthouse that day would appear before the court to receive their fine and negotiate a settlement. The City of Niagara’s message was clear to landlords: Follow the Code, or Face the Consequences. While some cities in the past have opted to provide warnings to building owners, the City of Niagara has now set a precedent for dolling out significant fines for fire deficiencies. Fines against landlords ranged in costs, with some receiving up to $150,000 in charges. Many were arranging settlements starting at $15,000 and up. It’s not clear whether the purpose of this blitz was truly about fire safety or simply a means to increase revenues.
One landlord, who noticed the irony in the situation, made note of the very same deficiencies on the part of the courthouse as was being brought against her property. While waiting for her appointed time in court, she noticed the hallways of the courthouse had waste bins available for people to dispose of their trash. She went a step further and timed the automatic closures for the courthouse doors… giving them a failing grade based on the same standards. Even the posted Fire Safety Certificate had passed its expiration date.
This article is not a knock against Niagara Falls Fire Services or the Fire Chief. Certainly, as landlords, we recognize the need for diligence in fire safety; first, for the safety of the tenants who reside in our buildings and secondly, for the protection of our greatest investment assets.Zero Tolerance Fire Safety Blitz... Continued from Page 1This fire safety blitz is, however, a warning flare sent out to all who own multi-unit residential properties in Ontario. You may be next! As we have seen in the past, when one city implements a fire safety protocol, many other cities tend to follow.
How can you be prepared for a Fire Safety blitz from your local Fire Services?
1) Be very familiar with the Ontario fire code and follow it to the letter
2) Be diligent in performing your annual and monthly fire inspections – including proper logging of your inspections
Remember, even if you have your building management team or superintendent perform your regular inspections and maintenance, when it comes to Fire Safety, ultimately the owner is responsible for any deficiency or damages. Also, it’s a good practice not to rely solely on your fire equipment supplier to be in compliance. In the past, we have seen these companies remove expired fire extinguishers at a building only to be replaced with older equipment from their storage.
For those of us in the ownership capacity of these types of properties, zero tolerance is not something new, however the strict enforcement of that policy should be a wake-up call for all of us. City of Niagara may be leading the charge right now but it could also set the precedent for other cities around the province to follow suit.