Fire regulation: What Toronto may giveth, it may taketh away

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12/22/2010

An interesting development has been reported regarding a zero-tolerance false fire alarm regulation in the city of Toronto—a bit of a puzzling one given public outcry about the tough rule.

I wrote recently about the new regulation because residents of that Canadian city were reportedly disconnecting their fire alarms to avoid the high fines it imposes. The cost for a false alarm is $350 per truck and three trucks routinely respond to each alarm, bringing the total fine to $1,050.

But now those fines could climb even higher, according to a story in the Toronto Sun newspaper this week. The paper reported that a newly proposed budget item calls for boosting the rate from $350 to $410 per hour per vehicle dispatched.

The fee hike is being proposed at the same time a city councillor is leading an effort to relax the city's regulation to allow residents one free false alarm per year.  Hmm ... is Toronto trying to help solve the problem or fan the flames?

The City Council passed the zero tolerance law earlier this year, and it reportedly has been a boon to city revenues. But Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby has told me that councillors didn’t realize at the time how hard it would hit city residents. She knows of four or five in her ward who’ve unplugged their alarms out of fear they’d face the hefty fines.

Luby has been working recently to persuade the City Council to go back to a previous regulation passed in 2006 that would allow residents one free false alarm per year. “That way I think we do away with all the issues,” Luby told me this week.

The good news, Luby said, is that the Council unanimously agreed earlier this month to send her motion on to a standing committee she sits on. That committee will review the proposal in January and it should go to the full council in February for consideration, she said.

Luby told me she hadn’t seen a proposal to increase the fee for false alarms so couldn’t comment on it. She said any such plan would also be part of her committee’s review.

On its face, it appears that the higher fee could be at odds with the city’s efforts to ensure that its false alarm ordinance isn’t so onerous that it causes residents to disconnect their fire alarms. Even if they get one false alarm free, that accidental second one could cost as much as $1,230 under the new proposal (presuming three trucks routinely go out)—still a scary thought for many homeowners.

This is how Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, put it in an email to me this week when I asked him his thoughts on Toronto’s fee hike proposal:

“I believe Toronto will realize, like other cities that have tried to squeeze unreasonable fees and fines from citizens, that the effort will not yield the desirable results (of increased revenue)... citizens will either stop using devices that generate those signals or they will resist, delay, complain or just not pay ...  leaving the city with large uncollected balances on the books and unhappy citizens—a loss-loss.”