The City of Toronto recently hired over 300 new fire inspectors, pledging to inspect every high-rise building in the city at least once a year. The Fire Code adopts a broad definition of “owner”, and, as a result, the city may lay Fire Code charges against unit owners, condo corporations, property managers, management firms and directors for the same infraction. However, there are a few precautionary steps condos can take to minimize exposure to a pesky Inspection Order or Notice of Violation.
Prevention is Cheaper than Defending Against Enforcement
Although safety is the founding principle behind the Fire Code, it is easier and cheaper to prevent a Fire Code violation than defend against one. Proper preventative measures will pay off financially and could save a few lives.
Retain a First-Rate Fire Services Provider
Every condo should retain a first-class fire services provider (“FSP”). FSPs are familiar with the Fire Code’s objectives and requirements. They have the hands-on knowledge to implement a fire safety system tailored to a condo’s needs. The Fire Code is complicated, dense and confusing, which can lead to misunderstandings between property managers and FSP’s regarding their respective responsibilities. To eliminate miscommunications, fire safety or compliance work should be left to the FSPs who are familiar with what they should be testing for, including violations that a condo manager would not likely notice.
Regularly Review Fire Plan and Keep Good Records
Every condo should have an up-to-date Fire Safety Plan that is reviewed on an annual or semi-annual basis. When the Fire Department conducts its inspections, a Fire Safety Plan is the first document they ask for. The Fire Safety Plan tells the Fire Department how carefully the condo manages its fire safety obligations. Most Fire Safety Plans are generic, although a good plan will outline what must be done, who must do it, and how and when it must be done. Management should also keep comprehensive records of any fire safety/inspection notices and inspection reports.
Condos should make efforts to educate their residents about fire safety. Occasionally distributing notices, pamphlets or “best practices” materials for matters such as testing smoke detector batteries and cleaning lint traps demonstrates to the Fire Department that the condo diligently strives to avoid Fire Code violations.
Act Fast – Contact Legal Counsel and Immediately Respond
Condos must act quickly after receiving an Inspection Order or Notice of Violation. Condos should immediately contact legal counsel to handle communications with the Fire Department. In our experience, whether it is the Fire Department demanding compliance or the prosecutor considering dropping certain charges, parties enforcing compliance typically appreciate seeing responsive steps to redress the violations. However, managers should be cautious when directly communicating with the Fire Department. While reporting a hoarder unit or illegal rooming house may be well-intended, the broad definition of “owner” may expose a corporation or property manager to an Inspection Order or Notice of Violation. Even worse, the inspector may extend the inspection beyond the particular unit.
Diligence is Key
In responding to Inspection Orders or Notices of Violation, condos must demonstrate they exercised due diligence in avoiding and promptly rectifying the violation. By retaining a first-rate FPS, implementing and carrying out a strong Fire Safety Plan, maintaining thorough records, educating owners and promptly responding to any Inspection Orders or Notices of Violations, condos can avoid being burnt by the Fire Code.
Tony Bui, J.D., Hon. B.A. practices condo law at Gardiner Miller Arnold LLP at Toronto. With a “can-do” attitude and a hands-on approach, his understanding of the problems clients face and the goals they hope to achieve, enables him to develop the strategies they need.