Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency’s inspection program doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and according to the city’s auditor general, the fire department has no documented plan to fix it.
Auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd and audit lead Ashley Maxwell presented their Management of Fire Inspection Program Audit to a virtual meeting of regional council’s Audit and Finance Standing Committee on Wednesday.
“Halifax Fire is not meeting its legislative obligations to establish an adequate fire inspection system,” Colman-Sadd told the committee.
According to the audit, fire inspectors “assess buildings for compliance with the Nova Scotia Fire Safety Act, which includes consideration of the National Fire Code of Canada and applicable sections of the National Building Code of Canada that impact fire safety.”
Under the Nova Scotia Fire Safety Act Regulations, municipalities are responsible for conducting investigations of apartment or condominium buildings with more than three units, along with business, retail, and industrial buildings. In total, Halifax Fire estimates it’s responsible for inspections of about 15,000 buildings.
Halifax Fire established a new program for inspections in 2019, when the fire department started hiring fire inspectors on top of the fire prevention officers it already had. There are currently eight inspectors.
Colman-Sadd said management told her office “that there are not enough fire inspectors to complete all inspection duties in a timely manner,” but they haven’t figured out how many inspectors they actually need. Management plans to change the program, but it doesn’t actually have firm plans or timelines.
“In our experience when plans are not written down, things often take longer or don’t reach completion at all. Fire inspections are important for enforcement of the fire code, and also to educate property and business owners,” Colman-Sadd said.
Halifax Fire’s management team doesn’t know how often buildings are supposed to be inspected, and the audit found buildings weren’t being inspected on time.
“Overall, 40% of the inspections we sampled were late,” Colman-Sadd said.
Some buildings have to be inspected every three years, per the provincial regulations. Those are “assembly” buildings like theatres, churches, and arenas. Of the 20 buildings like this the auditors looked at, nine missed the deadline. One of those buildings went 17 years without being inspected.
For other building types, it’s up to the municipality to decide how often they get inspected and to create a system for ensuring they’re inspected regularly. Halifax Fire established frequencies for those building types in 2009.
“However, they told us they don’t know if those frequencies are appropriate, and they have not been revisited,” Colman-Sadd said.
The audit sampled 38 of those buildings and found Halifax Fire didn’t meet its own timelines 37% of the time.
The audit also found that the fire department has no reliable list of buildings it needs to inspect. It created one in a spreadsheet in 2019, but that list hasn’t been updated since and Colman-Sadd said there’s no way of knowing whether it was complete at the time.
When Halifax Fire inspectors find violations, the audit found they do typically follow up to make sure they’re fixed.
In a sample of 30 inspections, 24 found violations. In four of those 24 cases there were delays in follow-up, and in one case there was no follow-up. The auditors did take issue with the documentation of the violations, however, finding that in six of the 24 cases with violations, there were no orders to comply issued.
“Documenting these details is important so deadlines are recorded, and to ensure there’s documentation should Halifax Fire need to take enforcement steps,” Maxwell told the committee.
The audit identified a lack of policies, procedures, and structures for management to monitor inspectors, along with a disconnect between Halifax Fire and the municipality’s planning department.
“Halifax Fire management told us certain subdivisions were built without appropriate fire safety specifications, such as inadequate water sources to fight fires,” the audit said.
“Specific subdivisions of concern include: Indigo Shores Subdivision in Middle Sackville, Westwood Hills Subdivision in Upper Tantallon and White Hills Subdivision in Hammonds Plains.”
The audit made 13 recommendations, all accepted by management. As it does for all audits, Colman-Sadd’s office will follow up in 18 months to determine whether the recommendations have been implemented, seeking confirmation that at least 80% of them are complete.
But that timeline was too long for councillors on the Audit and Finance Standing Committee.
“I feel the risk for HRM pretty significantly,” said Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon. “I’m just wondering if there are interim, six-month, 12-month, 18-month, if there is an option to sort of stay on top of this.”
Colman-Sadd said she feels the 18-month timeline gives the fire department adequate time to complete the recommendations, but she said the committee can ask for an action plan to complete the recommendations with a set timeline.
Deagle-Gammon put a motion on the floor recommending regional council ask Halifax Fire to develop an action plan within 60 days.
“We believe we can provide an action plan, certainly within that time period, because we feel we know what our action plan is,” Halifax Fire Chief Ken Stuebing told the committee.
“There are some things that will take some time to implement, but putting the plan down on paper is certainly not something that we could not achieve in two months, largely because we already are in the midst of that plan and all of our team know where we’re at in that implementation plan.”
Stuebing said he’s been aware of most of these issues since he started the job in 2017, and he said management has been working on fixing them. Stuebing said he’s made changes, starting with the creation of the fire inspector position separate to the fire prevention officers, and they’re ongoing. But, he said, they’re subject to negotiations with the union representing fire employees, so he’d only be able to say more in camera.
The committee went in camera for about half an hour, and passed Deagle-Gammon’s motion when it came back to the public session.