Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Potential fire traps unchecked

Inspectors look for violations only after complaints

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Firefighters reload oxygen tanks after searching the third floor of a rooming house at 614 Maryland St. that caught fire last January. For the last two years, rooming houses have been inspected only after a complaint.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Firefighters reload oxygen tanks after searching the third floor of a rooming house at 614 Maryland St. that caught fire last January. For the last two years, rooming houses have been inspected only after a complaint. Photo Store

For the last two years, city firefighters have lacked the manpower to routinely inspect rooming houses.

But this fall, house-by-house inspections are expected to begin again, which could trigger a surge in the number of rooming houses ordered closed for violating the fire code.

"When we go into a rooming house that we haven't been into for a few years, the owners are usually not maintaining what they're supposed to," said senior fire inspector Janet Bier. "We often go in to find the fire-alarm system is not working, and it may have been like that for the last year."

Or tenants have pulled smoke detectors off the ceiling, eliminating their first line of defence in case of fire.

In the last two years alone, there have been at least nine fires in Winnipeg rooming houses, including one that killed five people.

Rooming houses are a nightmare scenario for firefighters. They are old, poorly maintained buildings with warrens of rooms inside. There may be a dozen or more residents, many of whom suffer from mental illness, addictions or hoarding that make it tough to rescue them.

For the last two years, rooming houses have been inspected only after a complaint. The city's 12 inspectors have had to cope with an avalanche of new work mandated by the provincial government. New regulations say city fire inspectors must inspect daycares, nursing homes and hospitals annually to ensure they meet the fire code.

Rooming houses fell off the radar.

But complaints kept flooding in. In the five years ending in 2012, the fire department received a whopping 900 complaints about possible code violations in converted dwellings. Nearly all were legitimate.

"It's very rare that we respond to a complaint that's not valid," said Bier.

Here's the hitch that plagues rooming-house regulations: No one agrees what counts as a rooming house and several different provincial and city departments are responsible for them, making it remarkably easy for rooming houses to fall through the cracks.

The city licenses 184 rooming houses, with another 50 under review. But that figure comes nowhere close to the hundreds of rooming houses experts estimate exist in the city.

When city fire inspectors hit the streets this fall, they will have a list of between 600 and 700 dwellings to inspect.

Not all are traditional rooming houses -- some are converted single-family homes where tenants share bathrooms or kitchens, or both. Firefighters also inspect houses that have been converted into self-contained apartments.

Meanwhile, city bylaw inspectors handle complaints related to the neighbourhood livability bylaw -- overgrown weeds, collapsing front-steps, rats and many other issues.

It's not clear how many cleanup orders the city has issued for rooming houses in recent years.

Provincial health inspectors are called in for serious health problems such as mould or sewer backups. Health inspectors have issued no orders in the last year against rooming houses.

Fire violations are the most serious, and landlords are typically given 24 hours to get an alarm system working, an exit unblocked or some other violation fixed. At most, a landlord might have a week before fire inspectors shut a rooming house and remove the tenants.

"We want immediate action on those things," said Bier.

The city has shut parts or all of nine converted dwellings for serious fire-code violations in the last two years, including one on Atlantic Avenue that lacked smoke alarms, working exit signs and fire-alarm system and whose fire extinguishers needed servicing.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2013 B1

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Updated on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 6:25 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds sidebar

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