Canadian group leads regulation battle

CANASA says Toronto’s zero-tolerance ordinance too harsh on homeowners
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Monday, March 14, 2011

TORONTO—The Canadian Security Association continues to fight against a zero-tolerance false alarm regulation here, despite a recent decision by a city committee to defer until 2012 consideration of a proposal that would give homeowners a break, allowing them one free false fire alarm annually before fines would kick in.

“We lost the battle for the year, but we sure have not lost the war,” CANASA’s executive director JF Champagne told Security System News in February.

He said the Toronto zero-tolerance false alarm by-law is the most onerous such regulation that CANASA, headquartered in Markham, Ontario, is aware of. “Toronto is the only one we know of that has had this kind of effect on single-family homeowners,” Champagne said.

Some Toronto residents have reportedly been disconnecting their fire alarms to avoid the high fines required by the zero-tolerance regulation, passed in early 2010.

In addition to battling for the one free false alarm exemption for homeowners, CANASA also is fighting against a city budget proposal to increase the fees for false alarms this year from $350 per truck dispatched to $450. With three trucks routinely responding to each alarm, the total fine for a false alarm could climb from $1,050 to $1,230 [http://www.securitysystemsnews.com/article/toronto-may-raise-false-alarm....

The effort is an uphill one because Toronto’s newly elected fiscally conservative mayor is looking for new revenues as he slashes city spending. The city estimates the fee increase could bring an additional $1.9 million to city coffers.

Still, Champagne said, “we are fighting this very strongly.” He said the national board of CANASA has authorized spending up to $50,000 for advocacy on the issue.

CANASA plans to issue a call to action to its members for a March 31 meeting at which the City Council’s standards and licensing committee is scheduled to again discuss the by-law and its impact on homeowners, Champagne said.

Members of that committee earlier this year deferred until 2012 a proposal by Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby that the city go back to a previous regulation passed in 2006 that would allow residents one free false alarm per year.

Luby has told SSN that city councillors didn’t realize when they passed the zero-tolerance regulation last year how hard it would hit homeowners. She said she knows of four or five in her ward who have unplugged their alarms for fear of facing hefty fines.

Jim Burnett, Luby’s executive assistant, told SSN in February that she has not given up the fight. “If we can’t get it this year, she’ll keep going after it,” Burnett said. “The councillor feels very strongly it’s an inappropriate charge and it’s unfair.”

Champagne noted homeowners typically don’t have the multiple false alarms that multi-unit apartment buildings or big businesses might.

“Single-family homeowners are not repeat offenders,” he said. If they do have one false alarm, he said, “homeowners will address the problem and get it fixed. They’re good citizens.”

Champagne said the fight in Toronto is made more difficult because “we do not as an industry have the support of Chief Stewart.” In testimony city Fire Chief William Stewart gave to city officials, Champagne said, “he was very negative toward the industry.”

Stewart told SSN that the city’s by-law is designed to reduce false alarms, which can exceed 33,000 per year and take firefighters away from actual emergencies, and he said that comments he made were taken out of context. “I’m the first guy for fire safety,” the chief said.

He said he stated that Ontario requires smoke alarms on every floor of a single-family residence, but doesn’t mandate monitored fire alarms. If residents choose to have such an alarm they or their alarm companies should maintain it, the chief said. “Let the buyer beware,” he said.

But Champagne, noting statistics show 85 percent of fire deaths occur in the home, said fire alarms are “an essential service.” Without them, he said, there would be larger fires and more danger for both home occupants and firefighters.