Some condo lobbies may be looking spare lately, and it has nothing to do with minimalist design. The lounge furniture that usually occupies these spaces is being targeted as a fire risk.
Toronto Fire Services now instructs its staff to look at the flammability of seats, tables and cabinets that display decorative objects for the purposes of enforcing a provincial regulation that prohibits the accumulation of combustible materials in means of egress. A new guideline, issued last year, establishes criteria for hallway and lobby furnishings located in routes occupants may use to evacuate multi-residential buildings including long-term care, nursing and retirement homes. It also offers a list of compliance options, such as installing overhead sprinklers.
The move responds to a very real life-safety issue — furniture has been implicated in three serious fires — but it has also caught the condo industry off-guard. Although it has been shared with industry stakeholders, the engineering technical bulletin that details the new guideline is an internal document of Toronto Fire Services, so property managers are sometimes seeing a copy for the first time at the same time they’re receiving a notice of violation.
For property managers who have received notices of violation in the last several months, the quickest short-term fix has often been to remove furniture from affected hallways and lobbies until the best long-term solution can be determined.
A fire risk emerges
On Feb. 5, 2016, at 1315 Neilson Rd. in Scarborough, four people died after someone deliberately set fire to combustible chairs located at the intersection of two hallways on the top floor of a five-storey seniors building. A pair of subsequent blazes in high-rise buildings shared the same fuel source: furniture.
“The fires TFS has responded to in hallways and corridors have been intentionally set,” said Deputy Chief Jim Jessop, Toronto Fire Services, speaking June 7 at an Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch event designed to bring building owners and managers up to speed on the new guideline. “We can’t stop individuals from committing a criminal act. What we can do is remove the fuel and reduce the subsequent impact of that criminal act.”
This doesn’t mean building owners have to junk all their lounge furniture. What it does mean is that they have to select one of seven compliance options to mitigate the fire risk. Showing that combustible furniture falls within prescribed limits for heat release is one way to do this.
In the Scarborough case, follow-up investigation found that the type of furniture involved resisted ignition when exposed to a lit cigarette, but once on fire, it released heat at a rapid pace.
Recognizing this, the guideline points to two standards that subject furniture to open-flame testing to measure how quickly the furniture would release heat if it was involved in a fire. The guideline permits combustible furniture that building owners can prove passes the Flammability Test Procedure for Seating Furniture for Use in Public Occupancies described in the State of California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation Technical Bulletin 133-91 (TB 133). Alternatively, the guideline permits combustible furniture that building owners can prove achieves similar results under ASTM E1537-16, the Standard Test Method for Fire Testing of Upholstered Furniture.
The act of arson in the fatal Scarborough fire remains under ongoing criminal investigation by the Toronto Police Service. Meanwhile, however, Toronto Fire Services charged building owner Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) for Ontario Fire Code violations it said it observed during its post-fire inspection, including permitting combustible materials to accumulate in a means of egress. TCHC ultimately pleaded guilty to one charge for failing to fully implement the approved fire safety plan for the building — and was fined $100,000 — and resolved the deficiencies noted in the charge to Toronto Fire Services’ satisfaction.
Enforcement quickly follows
Complying with the guideline can be as simple as checking furniture for a label attesting to the fact that it meets TB-133. However, property managers could also find themselves rifling through old files to track down supporting documents from interior designers for custom pieces.
“You rarely see a board of directors go out to the Brick and pick up a $1,299 couch and throw it in their lobby, so the financial and resident comfort impact is significant,” said Michele Farley, president and senior code consultant at FCS Fire Consulting Services, speaking after the Institution of Fire Engineers event. “And in a lot of cases, removal of the furniture is not warranted, because the furniture is actually certified.”
Farley acknowledged the basis for the guideline, but added that it has been enforced quickly, without much warning, in some cases forcing affected property managers to hire movers and store furniture while they weigh next steps and at least temporarily leaving residents and visitors without places to sit and socialize or wait for transportation. She said that she has also encountered varying opinions as to what’s acceptable as notices of violation have come across her desk over the last six months.
“Some of the inspectors are interpreting anything in a lobby as combustible and they want it out,” said Farley. “Others are saying, ‘You have an eight-foot marble path between the two carpeted areas that have your couches in them, and you have containment, there’s smoke detection here, there’s 24/7 security, and the furniture is out of the way, so I don’t consider this a means of egress, so you can leave your furniture there.’”
Provided there is an evacuation route that bypasses the lobby, having fire separation between the lobby and the sections of corridor that serve suites is another compliance option if building owners can’t prove combustible furniture falls within prescribed limits for heat release. This compliance option, and several others, are contingent upon meeting a list of conditions, including that the area be equipped with either a smoke alarm or smoke detector, depending on whether it’s possible to connect to an existing fire alarm system.
“We’ve been very aggressive in terms of what we will permit or not permit. I know it’s sort of sent shockwaves through the industry,” Deputy Chief Jessop acknowledged, adding that Toronto Fire Services has done outreach to apprise stakeholder groups such as the Greater Toronto Apartment Association of its expectations.
Coming into compliance
The guideline cites Sentence 184.108.40.206.(2) of Division B of the Ontario Fire Code, which prohibits the accumulation of combustible materials in means of egress, among other areas, except when the design of those spaces addresses those materials. Convictions for violations of the Ontario Fire Code carry a maximum fine of $100,000 for corporations and $50,000 for individuals, who also face a maximum term of imprisonment of one year.
However, Deputy Chief Jessop said Toronto Fire Services is trying to work with building owners by explaining notices and orders and giving them time to remove furniture.
“You’re allowed to come forward, we’ve accepted alternatives, we’ve helped people, which is what we want to do,” said Deputy Chief Jessop. “We’re not charging people, so let me be very clear: We don’t walk in, see a couch and take you to court. We don’t do that.”
Property managers can also call the fire prevention division of Toronto Fire Services for guidance on compliance.
Although she has yet to see any violations taken to court, Farley urged property managers to address notices promptly.
“They have to evaluate what their options are, swiftly, because there may be a risk and because the fire department will be back in a couple of weeks to see what you’ve done,” said Farley.
Farley said she has one client who plans to fight a violation because the client believes she has the documents to demonstrate that her furniture does in fact comply with the guideline. Others, meanwhile, are looking at how much it will cost to install sprinkler systems in affected areas. Some of the compliance options may be more desirable than others.
“What they’re allowing in is unpadded wooden furniture and just some of the things they’re saying would be reasonable for people to have in their lobbies isn’t very comfortable,” said Farley. “There is certainly an impact of people within a condominium who are used to that big, cushy leather chair and now they’re going to get a wooden bench that’s similar to something they could sit on waiting for a TTC bus.
“A lot of thought, planning, design and cost goes into condo lobbies and that should be taken into consideration when working towards evaluating existing materials and complying with the fire code.”
Provincial regulation possible
Condos outside of Toronto could be forced to confront the fire risk posed by combustible furniture in the future. A provincial regulation inspired by the local guideline, which would have had a similar effect, was on the cusp of being adopted when the most recent Ontario government dissolved. Toronto Fire Services last week issued an updated version of its guideline that has been adjusted to better align with the proposed provincial regulation in case it gets revived by the incoming Ontario government.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.