Nova Scotia fire marshal's office failing to manage fire and building safety: auditor

·3 min read

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia fire marshal's office is putting the public at risk by failing to manage fire and building safety despite repeated warnings, the province’s auditor general says in a new report.

Kim Adair said her latest report, released Tuesday, is the third audit since 2001 warning that the fire marshal's office has not been performing appropriate oversight of its operations; an audit was also done in 2011.

“It is very concerning that there have been three audits and over two decades with similar findings and shortcomings,” Adair told reporters. “We are saying loud and clear that there’s a public safety issue here.”

The new report focuses on buildings such as schools, daycares and long-term care centres — facilities serving vulnerable people such as children, seniors and the disabled. Auditors found that 40 per cent of fire inspections on those buildings were completed late.

The audit, which covers the period from Jan.1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021, notes that inspections involving 12 of 30 buildings sampled, including long-term care facilities and a hospital, were conducted between five and 445 business days past deadline.

Adair said the fire marshal's office — which is composed of 19 employees across the province — explained that the missed deadlines were due to staff vacancies and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We could not verify that was a justifiable explanation because there is so little data and management information to support it,” Adair said. “You can’t say it’s a resource problem unless you have the data to prove it.”

The fire marshal's office, she said, doesn't keep a complete list of buildings that require inspections, nor does it have an archive of reviews of inspections or complaints. As well, there is no way to determine the performance of inspectors, she said.

Characterizing the state of affairs as a "management failure," the report notes that 100 per cent of the inspection files audited by Adair's office did not have appropriate supporting evidence and that the policy on inspections had not been reviewed or updated since 2016.

A good part of the blame falls on the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Adair said, which is responsible for the fire marshal's office. The department was aware of the office's shortcomings, she added.

“We hope there is not a serious fire event,” Adair said. “But if that does happen and this function is not fixed and carried out properly questions are going to be asked as to was there an inspection done … and right now they cannot demonstrate that it was.”

The report calls for a comprehensive review of the office’s organizational structure. The fire marshal's office, meanwhile, says a plan is in place to implement the recommendations, the report notes.

Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr said in a statement, “We recognize we can improve on some of our administrative processes, and I assure you that work is underway. It's our commitment to the auditor general and all Nova Scotians.”

Other recommendations in the report include for the fire marshal's office to introduce performance standards, implement a fire safety complaint tracking and resolution process and update the fire inspection policy and the list of buildings that require inspections.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2023.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press