Lantzville plays catch up on inspections

Don Bayne, firefighter, left, and John Marment, deputy chief of Lantzville Fire Rescue, take on the title Local Assistant to the Fire Commissioner when they are out in the community conducting fire safety inspections of businesses. - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
Don Bayne, firefighter, left, and John Marment, deputy chief of Lantzville Fire Rescue, take on the title Local Assistant to the Fire Commissioner when they are out in the community conducting fire safety inspections of businesses.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

With businesses left unchecked for the last decade, Lantzville Fire Chief Tom Whipps isn’t finding any fire code violations he didn’t expect.

Businesses mandated by provincial law to have fire safety plans don’t have them. Shelving has been put in front of electrical panels. Lights are out on exit signs and fire extinguishers are out of date.

“You’ve got to keep in mind, the businesses of Lantzville have never been inspected,” he said. “This is as much fire education as it is fire inspection and they are learning just as we are.”

The District of Lantzville has been required by the B.C. Fire Services Act to inspect public buildings, like stores and schools since 2003, but only started to look at fire risks last year.

According to Whipps, the volunteer fire department hasn’t had the time nor the people trained to do the job, resulting in checks getting put on the back burner.

It wasn’t until a 2013 fire underwriters’ survey highlighted the need for the department to have fire pre-plans – a result of inspections – that the district started directing resources toward checking for fire risks.

Five inspectors have now been trained and while the results of their inspections have not yet been made public, Whipps reports there have been safety issues found including at the District of Lantzville.

He says he is focusing on the positive – that the district evolved to where it needs to be – but he also acknowledges that not doing inspections until now was “probably negligent in the cold, hard facts of the case.”

Ultimately it was his responsibility, Whipps said.

Fire services officials don’t agree. They say the municipality chooses how fire services are implemented and they make those decisions within an ‘outdated’ Fire Services Act that provides no oversight and little clarity. In other words, while the province mandates municipalities have a regular system of inspections, there is no one ensuring that they do.

In an e-mail to the Nanaimo Bulletin, the Office of the Fire Commissioner said its up to local government to determine the frequency of inspections. Municipalities are not subject to oversight and there are no provisions in the Fire Services Act to penalize rule-breaking municipalites.

The hands-off policy means its not uncommon for inspections not to happen, or for checks to simply “fall through cracks,” according to Tim Pley, president of the Fire Chief Association of B.C.

In Port Alberni, where Pley is fire chief,  inspectors only started to look over industrial facilities like Catalyst paper mill in 2013, despite being obligated to do the reviews long before then.

“We relied on them to be self-sufficient and their insurance companies inspect those facilities fairly frequently, but ... our local government still had an obligation to do its own inspections and never did,” Pley said.

Gaps in the B.C. fire service go beyond inspections and were brought to the attention of the province through a series of recommendations in 2009. Among the calls are clear definitions on what inspections mean and more onus on business owners to meet fire safety codes.

“The Office of the Fire Commissioner ought to be providing oversight [but] when we asked them to provide oversight in a number of areas, not just inspections ... their mandate doesn’t extend that far,” Pley said, adding “it doesn’t seem right.”

Fire services experts have different views on just how important fire inspections actually are.  Doug Bell, , president of the fire prevention officers association and retired Nanaimo Fire Services captain, said at least five per cent of businesses in the Harbour City don’t look after fire safety features until someone tells them to because of the costs. It becomes a life safety issue, he said, adding it’s great to hear Lantzville is now doing inspections and follow-up. For why it hasn’t happened before now, Bell says people can look to the decision-makers but the public should have also called for regular inspections.

Lantzville is working on inspections in stores, bed and breakfasts and home-based businesses. Those with infractions have up to two months to comply.

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