Wednesday, May 26, 2021By Rebecca Melnyk
Many residents across Ontario are living in condos with outdated fire safety plans. This might be of particular concern among an aging population. Part of these plans includes a list of persons requiring special assistance: names and locations of people whose health conditions or disabilities may impede the evacuation process. This should be refreshed regularly, but isn’t always the case.
A fire recently occurred in such a building that transformed into a more senior demographic over the years. Deputy Chief Carrie Clark of the Barrie Fire Department was on the scene. “50 out of 75 units needed assistance in evacuating during an actual fire event,” she said during an online session hosted by CCI Huronia in March. “That’s pretty significant, resource-heavy for a fire department to actualize.”
To keep up, corporations should be attuned to all types of changes. As Jeff Struewing, vice-president of Shore to Slope Management Services, noted, plans may also need an overhaul if building systems are updated or renovations alter the layout of floors or rooms.
High-rise building systems are often too complicated for a manager to tackle all facets of fire code compliance alone, added Murray Johnson, vice-president of client services Crossbridge Condominium Services. Updating the plan with a reputable fire code consultant who is in-the-know regarding code changes is key to avoiding liability and staying safe.
Communicating fire code compliance to residents is critical, he said, and can be accomplished through the annual distribution of the resident emergency responsibility instructions and the assistance required forms. “Going even further, if you’ve got nothing to put on the bulletin board, do an educational campaign. Let them know about all the things in their unit they may be responsible for.”
Owners should obtain copies of fire safety policies that address how to respond to deficiency lists and emergencies. For the information to become second nature, managers should also reinforce fire code compliance with staff at regularly scheduled meetings, and dedicate an ongoing section in the management report to keep the topic at the forefront of a community.
Don’t just solve deficiencies. Prevent them.
“High-rise buildings have complex systems that both directly and indirectly affect fire code compliance,” said Johnson, citing generators, sprinkler systems, fire pumps, doors and soft skills like training as examples. Gather all records into one central binder to hand over when a fire inspector requests it, including proof of repairs.
Going beyond minimum standards, work to address a notice of violation, but also prevent them from recurring. Having processes in place ensures both safety and optics ahead of an inspection. To catch deficiencies ahead of time, one example is creating door logs (doors need to close and latch under their own power) and asking cleaning staff to check chute and stairwell doors as part of their routine, or HVAC staff and fire inspectors to check and log suite doors when visiting every year.
He also detailed how a manager’s annual plan should include checking the fire safety plan and other related items like inspections. Highlight all fire-related tasks and file a copy of that fire plan into the centralized record-keeping system. “That way, not only will the inspector see what the logs and records show, they’ll also see how you’ve planned out your year,” he said.
“Know your building and know the people in your building,” said Clark. Looking ahead, fire safety plans should be reviewed annually or more often. When changes are made, corporations might consider sending a copy to the fire department to review. According to her list of “Dos and Don’ts,” a fire department lock box should have current keys, enough to properly address the building. “A master key is a lot cheaper to cut than the 50 fire doors we are going to tactically demolish when we go in to do our checks,” she said, adding that doors are the easiest things to “write up.”
“There are more fire deaths that have occurred in corridors due to flammable decorations than people staying in their suites,” she said. “The door’s fire rating is ruined when you attach things to it. This includes mats, shoes and scooters.”
Keeping up on repairs and reports
Most corporations complete an annual life safety systems test, yet aren’t as savvy on providing repair reports, said Michele Farley, president and senior code consultant at FCS Fire Consulting Services, who regularly sees fire alarm records on many notices of violation throughout Ontario.
“This does not necessarily mean the test wasn’t done; it often means the repairs haven’t been done or completed, that there is no record of the correction of deficiencies or certificates of completion or, worse, no records at all,” she said. “Part two of the fire code requires condos to keep records for a minimum of two years.”
When it comes to repairs, some contractors are quick to inspect but slow to hand over a deficiencies list. “Finding the right contractor who can commit to providing the reports quickly is important,” noted Struewing. “Something to consider is authorizing the contractor to complete minor repairs during the inspection.” Have an on-site supply of smoke detectors, heat detectors, pull stations or fire extinguishers for instance, or ask the service provider to keep these common items on hand.
During the hiring process, Farley suggests paperwork management be part of the service-provider contract. There should also be a clear understanding of what the contractor’s responsibilities are during and after system tests, as well as a corporation’s own follow-up actions to facilitate all necessary repairs, maintain certificates, and close-off records. “Inspections could include multiple documents and contractors,” she noted. “Your fire alarm company might not be the company that tests your private fire hydrants, smoke control systems or generator. Do your best to streamline annual inspection around the same time or even the same month.”
In-Suite: knowing the equipment and gaining access
All board members and managers should know what type of life safety equipment is required by the Ontario fire code in suites and whose responsibility it is to have this checked and tested. This will depend on the building type. Townhouses, for example, won’t have the same systems as high rises do. “Make sure you provide residents with a list of what’s in their suites, either in your rules, regulations, declarations or their welcome package,” said Farley. “Be clear what their fire safety requirements are and remind them at least annually.”
Scheduled suite access can include checking a unit’s fire safety equipment during a yearly inspection, but approaching owners and renters about entering a unit for risk assessment can be tricky. Common concerns are suspected hoarding and balconies used for storage.
“You can be both firm and empathetic,” said Farley. “Give as much notice and options of days and times as reasonable and possible, but you should also be clear. Include a statement that arrangements have been made, that it is imperative to access be granted at that time, and what the access is for so they understand why you’re coming in. Hopefully, occupants comply, but if not, you’ve made your intentions clear, your reasons clear and you’re prepared to go to the next step of achieving that access, even if that happens to be calling a lawyer.”