Ontario’s fire protection and prevention laws are complex and oftentimes confusing. Business owners, landlords and even tenants should have some understanding of fire code compliance and their responsibilities under these laws to ensure their safety and the safety of others is met. Additionally, a firm knowledge of these legalities help mitigate against dangerous risks taking a turn for the worst.
From a commercial standpoint, some small businesses, especially within the hospitality industry, don’t do their homework up front and rely on their business premise as-is. For reasons of cost, time or lack of awareness, these businesses jeopardize themselves to hefty fines, expensive remedial costs, legal fees, and even jail. In a worst-case scenario, if a fire breaks out, the loss of life is the ultimate price in the beginning of a sharp financial and emotional downfall.
This post will discuss the basic legal background regarding Ontario’s laws surrounding fire prevention. It will outline general responsibilities of parties and the avenues available to the government for prosecuting offences and compliance violations. With those topics in mind, the hope is that readers will have an appreciation for implementing strong risk management procedures to build a more educated and safer community.
Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act (“FPPA”) regulates the province’s fire safety issues. The FPPA establishes the Office of the Fire Marshall (“OFM”) and assigns quite broad-reaching rights and responsibilities for fire protection service units, including warrantless entries and investigative powers. The FPPA also sets out a structure for penalizing those that violate its provisions.
The Ontario Fire Code (“Fire Code”) is a regulation created under the FPPA that outlines the minimum standards for fire safety in buildings and facilities in both commercial and residential contexts. Since the Fire Code provides a comprehensive set of rules for structural, internal and fixture requirements, it is an extremely technical document. Generally speaking, if a person isn’t from an engineering or construction background, their ability to navigate the Fire Code will be severely limited.
Even though the Fire Code is a complex piece of legislation, businesses, homeowners, landlords, and even tenants must all conform to its requirements. According to the Fire Code, an “owner” is responsible for complying with all of its provisions unless otherwise specified. An “owner” is defined as “…any person, firm or corporation having control over any portion of the building or property under consideration and includes the persons in the building or property”.
Such a broad definition and assignment of responsibility is deliberate. The policy intent behind this ensures the general public cannot escape liability by being willfully blind to fire safety issues or shrugging off their building and repair responsibilities to others. In practical terms, what this means is that EVERYONE should be attune to the possibility of becoming liable should a fire violation take place. While this may seem like a huge burden to shoulder, individuals and businesses cognizant of this high threshold are better suited to ask important questions and make decisions for implementing compliance initiatives.
What does this mean for condominium owners? Essentially unit owners cannot simply rely on their condominium corporation, property management team or tenants for keeping their property in compliance. Even though these other parties may be responsible for yearly maintenance and upkeep of fire alarms, smoke detectors and structural repairs, if an issue crops up within an owner’s specific unit, it is on the unit owner to report and attempt to remedy the situation as quickly and responsibly as possible. Again, the logic for this is to ensure the wide protection of society- landlords can’t become deliberately complacent and unit owners are attentive to risks for their guests.
OFFENCES & PROSECUTIONS
Generally speaking, the province can seek two separate avenues to prosecute Fire Code violations.
Set Fines, Inspection Orders
As previously stated, inspectors have broad ranging powers to investigate premises, including warrantless and without notice entries. If an owner is found to be in violation, inspectors can issue Inspection Orders. Inspection Orders carry a potentially onerous burden on owners and occupants, sometimes requiring them remove buildings or structures or dismantle and construct fixtures. An Inspection Order can also close a premise down on an immediate basis until corrective actions are taken. Business owners should be especially aware of this as closing even for a day can lead to a significant loss in profits.
Failure to comply with an Inspection Order is an offence and carries a maximum fine of $20,000 for every day where non-compliance continues. The Fire Marshall can also seek an order in the Superior Court to compel an non-compliant recipient to carry on their required remedial obligations.
At any time during this avenue, whether it’s after issuing an Inspection Order or when a recipient is not complying with an Inspection Order, the government may also issue a set of fines for the specific Fire Code violations according to Part 1 of the Provincial Offences Act. Set fine amounts are listed here and are not inclusive of a Victim Fine Surcharge and Court Costs.
Owners and occupants prosecuted under this avenue face a significant financial burden for non-compliance. First, the cost of remedial works can drastically vary depending on the violation and price to rectify it. Secondly, if set fines are issued, the paying those off, along with the calculation for Victim Fine Surcharge and Costs could render a recipient in significant financial hardship.
The OFM can alternatively choose to prosecute Fire Code violations under Part 3 of the Provincial Offences Act. This involves the laying of an Information (a formal court document that charges an offender), parties attending court, and ultimately having a formalized trial where witnesses can testify before an adjudicator.
According to section 28 of the FPPA, an individual who is found guilty can be fined up to $50,000 per charge, face a year of imprisonment or both. Corporations can be fine up to a maximum of $100,000 per charge and directors can also be held personally responsible as well.
Generally, this prosecution method is utilized if the OFM consider an offender’s violations so egregious or substantial that set fine amounts and remediation are insufficient deterrents. An action under this avenue can be made in conjunction to any civil suits that other interested parties may have on a Fire Code violator. While there is little insight as to what policy stance the OFM takes on deciding to prosecute under Part 3, suffice to say that any incident where a fire breaks out, significant injury or death and stark departures of fire safety compliance will almost certainly invite a party to be charged.
The cost consequences for defending this type of prosecution are noticeably more than the former. Apart from legal fees and any possible remediation, the time spent on marshalling witnesses, preparing a defence, and potentially shouldering a finding of guilt can destabilize an accused party.
Having learned of the massive responsibility that individuals and businesses shoulder to ensure fire safety, the next step should be to mitigate and lessen the blow of a potential prosecution from happening. From a commercial standpoint while it may be expensive to hire a fire professional and implement safety controls, the cost of not having that in place upfront greatly outweighs the risks and financial burden of defending a prospective claim.
Retaining legal counsel to work alongside staff, contractors and management is also bolsters the ability to avoid any problems associated with the Fire Code from cropping up. By having a trained legal professional take time to update parties on the laws, create best practice and litigation management strategies, and inform stakeholders adds value to businesses while satisfying high safety standards. These upfront investments can pay dividends when working with insurers and becoming a community leader.
Disclaimer: Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to replace, legal advice. Contact Chu & Huang Law to discuss a specific legal issue and please note that contacting Chu & Huang Law, on its own, does not create a lawyer-client relationship.