Owner compliance, regulator vigilance and occupant awareness are complementary elements of fire safety in buildings that have literal life-and-death consequences. Following the recent tragic fire in Oakland, California, in which 36 people died in a warehouse that had been improperly turned into residential and event space, fire safety and legal experts are reflecting on the confluence of deliberate and inadvertent omissions that underlie most calamities.
“No one should have been living there and no one should have been attending a party there,” reiterates Michele Farley, president of FCS Fire Consulting Services Ltd. “What stands out with this situation is the number of people who knew it was a problematic building.”
Only a small fraction of landlords outright flout requirements for building permits and/or welcome illegal occupancies, but the repercussions of their negligence — as seen in Oakland — can be disproportionately harmful. As a counterbalance, fire safety and bylaw enforcement agencies are often spread thin across vast numbers of buildings. Inspectors typically rely on outside complaints to alert them to situations that need investigation, and on owners’ cooperation to rectify hazards.
Notably, a statement from the city of Oakland confirms it had investigated the offending property just three weeks before the deadly fire. “A city building inspector visited the property and verified the blight complaint, but could not gain access to the building to confirm the other complaint regarding unpermitted construction,” the Dec. 3 release reports.
Landlords bear responsibility
The city has now pledged to delve deeper into the circumstances of the case. Given what’s characterized as the litigious culture in the United States, knowledgeable observers predict the municipality will be sued, but, as in Canadian jurisdictions, building owners are almost always the prime bearers of responsibility.
“Legislation generally protects regulatory workers from prosecution unless you can show recklessness or bad faith,” says Joe Hoffer, a partner and specialist in municipal and residential tenancy law with Cohen Highley LLP. “If no order has been issued — even if one is threatened — and then there is a fire, there is no reason to conclude that the issuance of an order would have prevented the fire. In every case, the question is whether compliance or non-compliance would have prevented the fire, and that obligation rests with the landlord.”
Fire inspectors have the authority to immediately evict occupants and padlock a building when they deem it necessary. In less onerous situations, they issue an order with a deadline for compliance. Based on the degree of risk and the offender’s risk profile, compliance may be confirmed through a follow-up inspection or documentation from the landlord to prove required work has been completed.
In other cases, violations can mount over time. Farley gives the example of turnover in industrial buildings where the unit fails to meet the required standards of the new tenant’s building use. Perhaps more often, accumulating clutter creates the dual dangers of blocked exit paths and increased fire loads.
“What changes an occupancy from being low to medium to high is based on the fire load,” advises David Gardner, senior occupational hygiene and safety consultant with Pinchin Ltd. “So, in a used book store, for example, if there are enough books crammed in there, they could change the occupancy (classification) of the building use.”
Clutter also poses particular challenges for residential landlords who must balance safety concerns of the whole tenancy and individual tenants’ rights.
“In the context of a hoarder, particularly of paper and other combustible material, the Fire Inspector will order the landlord to cure the problem, but the landlord cannot simply go in and throw out the tenant’s junk,” Hoffer notes. “The landlord has to go through the process of accommodating the hoarder while, at the same time, starting a legal process for eviction.”
Of course, illegal conversions and occupancies present myriad potential hazards that can dramatically reduce the amount of time available to safely escape from a building. The fire code mandates detection and suppression systems, fire separations and fire rating of structural components, and prospective building users should never assume these measures are in place unless there is proof of code compliance.
Farley also warns of the potential for overtaxing electrical wiring, particularly if large appliances like fridges and stoves are plugged into improper outlets. Under Ontario’s fire code, abandoned buildings are supposed to be secured with fencing, and other measures if needed, to safeguard against illegal occupancies and/or random vandalism that could put people and property at risk.
“The message should always be: Public beware,” she asserts. “And it’s not just kids going to some clandestine dance club. I’ve seen health care professionals propping open linen closet doors for convenience, which is a fire code violation. It’s all about education and awareness of risk.”
Farley recommends the Ontario Fire Marshal’s safety guidance for student housing and calls for equal vigilance when choosing retirement housing and long-term care homes for seniors. “When I was looking with my own mother, I asked about the fire alarm system, sprinklers and evacuation procedures,” she says.
Meanwhile, as an example of compliance efforts, she recounts how one community service agency converted donated space into an emergency shelter for the homeless. Consultants measured and ensured appropriate distances from the sleeping area to the exits, designated an area with the most direct access to the exits for patrons with mobility limitations, and implemented a sign-in and numbered-bed system so that every patron’s location could be easily determined.
“It wasn’t that expensive to do that,” Farley observes. “With awareness, there are steps that can be put in place to make people safer.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.