For the past 30 years I’ve worked in the fire service in several capacities: As a Certified Fire Fighter, a Fire Inspector, a Fire and Explosion Investigator, a Delegated Assistant to the Fire Marshal, and a Fire Service Instructor.
It has certainly given me a unique perspective, but no matter how you look at it, there’s one glaring truth: a lot of the incidents we are called out to can easily be avoided. Yes, accidents are going to happen, and some things are outside of our control. But, by and large, most of the incidents that I’ve been assigned to could have been controlled, if not entirely prevented, if the properties had been compliant to the fire code.
Even the most basic fire code violation can lead to devastating losses. So, I’m going to briefly outline just a few of the most common, and most avoidable, Fire Code violations.
1. ACCUMULATION OF COMBUSTIBLE MATERIAL IN AND AROUND BUILDINGS
“Combustible materials shall not be accumulated in or around a building in such quantity or such location as to create a fire hazard.” Ontario Fire Code 2015: 22.214.171.124. (1)
This can be something as simple as a building manager storing Christmas decorations or cleaning supplies in the electrical room. I understand space is at a premium, but if a fire starts in that room, the combustible storage boxes can significantly accelerate the fire progression, literally acting as fuel for the fire.
And it’s not just inside the building where you have to be mindful. A few years ago I was called to a strip mall where an arsonist had started a fire in a dumpster. Unfortunately, the dumpster was placed up against the building. This hazardous placement enabled the fire to climb the exterior wall and spread to the interior. Had the dumpster been placed the required 10 feet (minimum) away from the building, the owner would have had to simply replace the dumpster. Instead they were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the building and its contents.
2. EXHAUST AND FIRE PROTECTION SYSTEMS IN COMMERCIAL KITCHENS
Exhaust and fire protection systems shall be maintained in accordance with NFPA 96, “Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations”. Ontario Fire Code 2015: 126.96.36.199.
Fires in commercial kitchens: I’ve probably seen 15 of these in the last few years. I always ask the owner, “When was the last time the commercial cooking exhaust hood and related duct work been cleaned?” Regardless of the answer, I usually find a sticker or some paperwork with the cleaning company’s name and I call the contractor to confirm. More often than not the cleaning contractor will say that the owner used to have them come in every 6 months (as per the code), and then it was every 9 months, then once a year, and now it’s been over 2 years because the owner doesn’t want to pay the approximately $300 to have the equipment cleaned.
Now these are usually small, privately owned restaurants. And I get it, it’s not an easy business. But the potential risks far outweigh the costs. These incidents not only impact the lives of the insureds immensely, but they also result in extremely costly claims for insurers. Not only are they paying for the resulting damages to the building, contents and equipment, they’re also paying out the expenses associated with loss of business and wages.
3. SOLID-FUEL-BURNING APPLIANCES
Solid-fuel-burning appliances and equipment shall be maintained in accordance with CSA-B365, “Installation Code for Solid-Fuel-Burning Appliances and Equipment”. Ontario Fire Code 2015: 188.8.131.52.
The first time I ran into this I was a fairly new inspector – so quite a few years ago. I was called to a home to deal with a smoke alarm complaint and the young lady living there asked if she should also have her fireplace cleaned. Since she was renting, I told her that the owner was responsible for all provisions of the fire code. As it turned out, the chimney hadn’t been cleaned or inspected for a few years – the fire code requires it be done annually when the unit is not owner occupied. It also happened that the property management company, who owned the home, owned 200 similar townhouses in the complex. All of those homes now had to be inspected. When it was all said and done, only 4 out of 200 were deemed safe by the chimney sweep, “WETT” certified company. This constituted an “extreme” risk of fire to all the properties and their occupants. If a fire broke out in just one home it could easily spread to the others because of their close proximity. This finding required me to post an “Immediate Threat to Life Notice” on the front door of all 200 units. This advised the tenants not to use their fireplaces until the safety issue was rectified. Following the notice, I was obligated to prepare an Inspection Order, directing the owner to either repair or remove all of the fireplaces.
The owner opted to have all fireplaces removed, which understandably upset the tenants. I was therefore subpoenaed to testify on behalf of the tenants at the Landlord Tenancy Board hearing, which compensated all of the tenants to the tune of a $100 reduction in their rent. For the owner, this amounted to $20,000 in monthly income for the foreseeable future. Add to that the cost of removing all the fireplaces and you’re looking at a very significant loss, when they could have just having the fireplaces inspected annually for $150 per address, once per year.
4. SMOKE ALARMS AND CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS
Just for a moment, I’ll ask you to take off your ‘professional hat’ and put on your ‘homeowner hat’. Go home, check your smoke alarms, and make sure they work. The overwhelming majority of fire related deaths occur either because there was no smoke alarm, or because the smoke alarm was non- operational. It’s something I see all the time unfortunately, and it’s so saddening because these incidents are so easily avoidable. The same thing applies to carbon monoxide alarms (CO). It’s not enough just to have them; make sure they work.
A working smoke alarm will not only save your life, it will alert you to the fact that there may be a fire in its incipient stage. This is where a fire begins and grows from a smouldering fire to an open flame. At this stage the fire is relatively small and you may be able to extinguish or at least control it. Working smoke and CO alarms will alert you that there is a problem and allow sufficient time to evacuate if necessary. From an insurer’s perspective, earlier detection will directly affect the quantum of the claim.
5. PORTABLE EXTINGUISHERS
Maintenance and testing of portable extinguishers shall be in conformance with NFPA 10, “Portable Fire Extinguishers”. Ontario Fire Code 2015: 184.108.40.206. (1)
I was called into an auto repair shop not too long ago. What started as an engine fire, spread to the rest of the garage because their portable fire extinguisher had been used previously and never recharged. Had they recharged it, they could have controlled the fire in the vehicle, and been left with a damaged car and some clean up. Instead they were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the rest of the building and its contents.
Portable extinguishers are required to protect every building with the exception of dwelling units. What’s more, they have to be maintained – visually inspected monthly, and inspected, tested and maintained annually by a certified extinguisher technician.
6. OBSTRUCTIONS TO SPRINKLER SYSTEMS
No obstructions shall be placed so as to interfere with the effectiveness of water discharge from sprinklers. Ontario Fire Code 2015: 220.127.116.11. (1)
The fire code requires 15” of clearance from the bottom of each sprinkler head. About five years ago I was at an apartment building: Nothing huge – 15 storeys, maybe 180 units, with several levels of basement storage. Tenants had boxes stacked right up to the ceiling and winter jackets hanging from the pipes, so when the fire started (from excessive use of extension cords – another violation), the sprinklers weren’t able to suppress the fire as per the design of the sprinkler system.
Another time, a contractor repainted the storage rooms and in doing so, all the sprinkler heads. Luckily we caught this issue before something bad could happen. The owner was now required to shut down the water, drain the sprinkler system water pipe lines and change every painted, sprinkler head.
Best-case scenario for these violations is that they’re discovered before something happens. That’s the best case. Worst case, a violation goes unnoticed until a grease fire engulfs an entire restaurant, or a life is lost because the batteries need replacing in their smoke alarm. It doesn’t take much for that worst-case scenario to become a reality. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to prevent it either.
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DAVID MONTONE, Fire and Explosion Investigator
David specializes in Fire and Explosion Investigations and Fire Code Inspections and Enforcement. He is trained as a Hazardous Materials Technician, Railcar Specialist and CBRNE Technician (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives). His professional history includes over 30 years in fire services, including eight years as a fire inspector and fire investigator with the City of Ottawa, 12 years as a professional firefighter, and nearly 10 years as a volunteer firefighter. Throughout his career, David has completed over 250 fire investigations and 800 building inspections for fire code compliance.