Owner responsibility and liability for life safety in their buildings is clearly defined in the B.C. Fire Code, which states:
British Columbia Fire Code (2018)
Division C – Administrative Provisions – Sec. 2.2 Administration
1) Unless otherwise specified, the owner or the owner’s authorized agent shall be responsible for carrying out the provisions of this (B.C. Fire) Code.
Owner Responsibility & Liability
The information contained in this section about Strata Owner responsibility and liability is provided for the user’s convenience and education and as a basic starting point for further reading. It does not constitute, nor is it meant to be a substitute for getting, legal advice.
The requirements for document retention, which will include those for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of all life safety systems, is also outlined in both the Strata Property Act and the Regulations.
The Strata Property Act also clearly spells out the use of the Contingency Reserve Fund account and provides for exceptions for unapproved expenditures under specific circumstances.
The Act is also clear on the requirement for certain forms of insurance and the option for Councils to consider additional forms of insurance.
We raise these parts of the Strata Property Act for several reasons.
Testing & Maintenance
Firstly, while some forms of maintenance and repair can be temporarily or almost indefinitely postponed, such as painting, re-carpeting, or Depreciation Reports; Fire Alarm System inspection, testing, maintenance, and repair is legally mandated by the B.C. Fire Code. All systems and equipment in the building must be inspected and tested on a regular, ongoing basis and, at minimum, on a monthly and annually basis as per the Code and its referenced documents. Despite many people’s belief that it is the responsibility of the local fire department to ensure that all safety requirements are met in buildings, the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the Owners.
- Check – means a visual observation to ensure that devices or systems are in place, and no obvious damage or obstructions to proper operation exist.
- Inspect – means a physical examination to determine that the devices or systems will apparently perform in accordance with its intended function.
- Test – means operation of the devices or systems to ensure that it will perform in accordance with its intended operating functions. It is generally required to have a certified system technician perform tests.
The majority of inspections are generally quick checks to ensure that the particular system is operational and not in need of service. Some inspections do not require a high degree of technical knowledge of the particular system, but rather the ability to check for a specific problem, and have it corrected. Such inspections could be adequately performed by selected supervisory staff on a daily basis, providing that adequate insurance to mitigate risk is in place and confirmed.
Semi-Annual and Annual Inspection, Testing and Maintenance procedures generally involve technical procedures and will be performed by qualified individuals or private contractors specializing in the particular field. Contractors may perform their own unique inspection and testing procedures; however, their procedures and records must meet the requirements set by the B.C. Fire Code and Underwriters Laboratories of Canada. The repair or cleaning of equipment and the periodic replacement of components must be as per manufacturer’s specifications and recommendations, must not reduce the level of performance of the equipment, and must be recorded on separate repair reports. While the B.C. Fire Code requires that all records regarding the life safety systems must be kept for a minimum of two years, the Strata Property Act requires their retention for as long as the equipment in question remains operational in the building.
When the system or any part of it is shut down, the supervisory staffs are to be notified and alternative measures are to be followed as outlined the fire safety plan and in accordance with
BC Fire Code, Division B, sentence 18.104.22.168 (1) – Protection during Shutdown:
1) When any portion of a fire protection system is temporarily shut down, alternative measures shall be taken to ensure that protection is maintained. (See Note A-22.214.171.124.(1).)
NOTES: A-126.96.36.199. (1) Interruption of normal operation of a fire protection system for any purpose constitutes a “temporary shutdown.” Types of interruptions include, but are not limited to, periodic inspection or testing, maintenance, and repairs. During a shutdown, alternative measures are necessary to ensure that the level of safety intended by the Code is maintained.
In the shutdown of a fire alarm system, alternative measures should be worked out in cooperation with the fire department to ensure that all persons in the building can be promptly informed, and the fire department notified, should a fire occur while the alarm system is out of service.
These shutdowns may necessitate the use of operating or contingency reserve funds to make emergency repairs or replacements relating to the fire alarm system “if there are reasonable grounds to believe that an immediate expenditure is necessary to ensure safety or prevent significant loss or damage, whether physical or otherwise.”
Most Strata Councils will have a chosen fire safety service provider who comes in once a year to provide the annual servicing of the equipment in the building. Unfortunately, despite delegating the inspection to said company, the fact remains that it is the Owner(s) who are responsible for ensuring that the Code required testing has been conducted and properly documented in an Underwriters Laboratories of Canada compliant report; as well as seeing that all deficiencies are remedied, that the building is protected during any disruption to the life safety systems, and a final repair report provided and retained.
This holds true for the Code required monthly testing as well, which is often not completed at all or is sometimes delegated to volunteers on site, who may or may not have the training, background in fire alarm systems, or insurance coverage to be operating and resetting the fire alarm system.
Fire Safety Planning
The B.C. Fire Code Regulations are pursuant to the Fire Services Act and require that emergency planning and fire safety planning be done in all building that have a fire alarm system.
Councils have vested interests in promoting fire safety. The Fire Safety Plan is crucial for residents’ and public safety; it is much more than a template document produced just to meet a regulatory requirement. To that end, fire officials recommend that Councils use experienced and trained employees, contractors or other individuals who are familiar with the content and design of Fire Safety Planning and implementation.
The Fire Safety Director, or other individual with intimate knowledge of the workings and hazards associated with the building, should be involved to ensure specific issues related to the building are addressed. In addition, a qualified professional or subject matter expert (Engineer, Architect, fire safety consultant, etc.) should be consulted to assist with development of the plan or portions of the plan. Finally, communications with the local fire department should occur to help ensure congruency with their expectations and operations, to provide them knowledge of the facility, as well as to receive their review stamp.
The completed Fire Safety Plan must be reviewed by the local fire department and a copy is retained on site in a location accepted by them. Council is responsible for implementing all aspects of the Fire Safety Plan, for keeping it current and applicable at all times, and for ensuring your residents and any employees are well trained in its expectations.
However, this raises another area of concern in the appointment of Fire Safety Directors and Deputy Directors within the Fire Safety Plan. The B.C. Fire Code dictates that:
188.8.131.52. Training of Supervisory Staff
1) Supervisory staff shall be trained in the fire emergency procedures described in the fire safety plan before they are given any responsibility for fire safety.
The complete list of responsibilities for Supervisory Staff, including the Fire Safety Director, can be found in below.
Insurance & Potential Liability
In our exploration, we have found that while many insurance policies provide coverage for both property damage and bodily injury, they can often have “fine print” limitation and exclusions that can preclude coverage in some cases.
Depending on the underwriter, the average Commercial General Liability insurance, which all Strata’s are required to obtain, may not cover property damage and bodily injury, for example, if the Council has failed to advise the Insurer that the fire alarm system was in need of repair or that they had received a recommendation to upgrade by the fire department or annual service provider.
And while Council is free to purchase additional insurance in the form of errors and omissions coverage, also known as Directors & Officers Liability Insurance, it may only cover Strata Directors engaged in their direct duties as Council members, and not in any extended responsibilities they may undertake, such as Fire Safety Director or monthly test person of the fire alarm system.
It also appears that, in some cases, neither of the above-mentioned insurances may cover volunteers who offer to take on either of those responsibilities.
These responsibilities, and their attendant potential risks of liability, are often unknown or overlooked by the Owners and Council, which could leave them vulnerable in the event, or aftermath, of an emergency.
This could place the Strata Corporation in the unenviable position of having their legal defense precluded, simply because they were unaware of the ramifications of these seemingly simple decisions.
We encourage ALL Owners to contact their insurance brokers and ask a few straightforward, but imperative questions to ensure their peace of mind and liability coverage, both as Owners and Directors. While they may seem repetitive, each presents a slightly different angle from which to view the liability.
Based on the Strata Corporation’s current insurance policy, is the Strata and Council covered:
- If the Corporation &/or its employees engages in providing monthly fire alarm system testing, including activating pull stations and resetting the fire alarm panel?
- Under their Commercial General Liability &/or Directors & Officers Insurance, for property damage and bodily injury if the Owner is acting outside of its normal “duties as Directors” ?
- If Owners act as Fire Safety Directors within the building, based on the attached list of responsibilities?
- If the Strata fails to notify the Insurer of
- any changes, including significant repairs or replacement, to their fire alarm system or
- recommendations to upgrade or remediate their fire alarm system received from their service provider or the local fire department?
The building owner appoints the Fire Safety Director in writing. The F.S.D. is not in the building on a continuous basis; however, the F.S.D. should be available to respond to the building on notification of a fire emergency, in order to provide assistance as described in this plan. In the event that the F.S.D. is unavailable, a Deputy Fire Safety Director should be available to perform the obligations of the absent director.
- Administering and maintaining the Fire Safety Plan. This should include:
- Updating the plan annually, and when alterations are made to the building, as per 184.108.40.206. (2) of the British Columbia Fire Code.
- Training of Deputy Fire Safety Directors
- Recording information on the following:
- Fire incidents
- False alarms
- Fire drills
- Discharge or operation of fire equipment
- Training periods
- Name, location, and persons requiring assistance and their volunteer assistants (specify assistance required).
- Minutes of fire safety meetings (if applicable).
- Ensuring that fire protection systems are inspected, maintained, and serviced in accordance with the plan and the fire code, and where an inspection, maintenance, or testing procedure is beyond in-house capabilities, it is their responsibility to have qualified personnel complete the procedure.
- Ensuring that additional precautions are taken to offset the hazard to occupants where fire protection systems are inoperable. This should include:
- Checking the fire safety plan and fire code when fire systems are in need of repair.
- Advising the fire department of the system status.
- Instituting a fire watch when the fire protection system will be inoperable.
- Ensuring that building maintenance, alteration or renovation does not expose the building or occupants to undue hazards, and precautions are taken to ensure building and occupant safety. This should include:
- Checking the fire safety plan and the fire code when such activities take place to ensure that they meet requirements of the fire safety plan and fire code regulations.
- Ensuring that supervisory staff are available to respond to the premises in the event of notification of an emergency. This should include:
- Notifying the Deputy Fire Safety Director when they will not be available.
- Providing information to occupants on general fire safety and evacuation procedures. This should include:
- Providing new occupants with Part 3 (Occupant Fire Prevention, Preparedness, & Control) of the plan.
- Notifying occupants whenever the Fire Safety Director, or Deputy Fire Safety Director changes.
- Resolving any fire hazards which are reported by occupants, guests or the fire department.
- Maintaining familiarity with the building’s fire protection systems.
- Familiarity with fire regulations. This should include:
- Obtaining and reviewing a copy of the B.C. Fire Code.
- Ensuring that the electrical rooms are not used for storage.
- Ensuring that established policies are adhered to.
- Retaining copies of all fire alarm monthly and annual testing and any repair reports in the Appendix
- Considering other emergency situations which could affect the building such as earthquakes, or natural gas leaks.
- Notifying the alarm monitoring station when the emergency contacts change (when applicable).
It is the responsibility of the Owner, Agent, &/or Manager of the premises herein named to ensure the safety of the occupants as laid down in Division C, Part 2, Sentence 220.127.116.11.(1) of the 2018 British Columbia Fire Code. Furthermore, Division B, Part 2, Sentence 18.104.22.168.(1) states Supervisory Staff shall be trained in fire emergency procedures described in the Fire Safety Plan before they are given any responsibility for the fire safety.