Fires spark inspection overhaul

By Daniel Kitts

The owner of a Centretown apartment complex under investigation for inadequate fire protection after suffering two fires in seven months says he is following a schedule for improvements set by the city.

William Robert Cuming of Kanata told Centretown News he rejects claims by both city fire officials and tenants that he is not in compliance with the law.

He said a schedule established by the city for improvements still gives him time to finish the work required.

“We have a schedule to follow and we are entitled to follow it,” he said, contradicting fire officials.

Gary Richardson, chief of Ottawa fire services, says it is his understanding that an inspection of the complex, located at 285-289 Metcalfe St. and known as the Gainsbor-ough, was conducted in 1995 or 1996 and that the property was expected to be up to standard by the end of 1997.

An inspection after the latest blaze indicates the complex lacks interconnected hallway smoke detectors, a fire-alarm system, and self-closing doors that will contain a fire for at least 20 minutes, says Ottawa fire inspector David Port. All of this equipment was supposed to have been installed no later than 1995, according to regulations set down by the Ontario fire marshal in 1992.

As to why fire services didn’t follow up on the situation, Richardson says the file simply fell through the cracks. “There’s no doubt about it, we dropped the ball on this building,” he says.

The problem came to light after a fire broke out at about 10:30 p.m. on March 12. Tenants say they had no idea anything was wrong until people from across the street noticed the flames and alerted them. No one was injured, but the fire gutted two apartments and damaged a third.

Joanne Crawford, who lived below the apartment in which the fire started, was awakened by someone banging on her door. When she returned to her apartment after the fire, there was a hole in the ceiling above her bed. “It was pretty close,” she says.

Residents say the first fire on Aug. 20 also went unnoticed until well after it started.

However, Cuming says all apartments are equipped with smoke detectors which are sometimes disabled by tenants.

“They take the batteries out or they remove them because they go off every time they burn the toast.”

Tenant Eleanor Bell says she found her smoke detector so unreliable, she bought her own.

Somerset City Coun. Elisabeth Arnold says she is concerned that an improvement agreement made between the owner and the city has not been complied with and has requested more information about the situation.

But Cuming maintains he has made improvements since the agreement, but refuses to elaborate.

Both fires have been ruled accidental and caused an estimated $270,000 in damage.

Richardson says the Gainsborough fires have prompted fire services to improve the way it does business. He says the fire prevention bureau is in the process of being revamped on the basis of a $56,000-study done last year. As a result, inspection files will soon be computerized, making the process faster and more comprehensive.

Charles O’Brien, of Ottawa’s fire prevention bureau, says in cases such as the Gainsborough, owners will usually be given 60 days to complete the work required. Court action may result if it’s not.

But Cuming says Ontario law puts him up against a wall.

“Let’s look at the facts,” he says. “The government regulates how much I can charge my tenant for rent. Now, they’re telling me how much I should pay out in upgrading the building? You can’t tie my hands behind my back and expect me to follow all the rules.”