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 audit, released Tuesday, is the third since 2001 to warn that the fire marshal's office has not been performing appropriate oversight of its operations.

“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 facilities serving vulnerable people, including schools, daycares and long-term care centres. Auditors found that 40 per cent of fire inspections on those buildings were completed late.

The audit, which covers a two-year period from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021, notes that inspections involving 12 of 30 buildings sampled 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 none of the inspection files audited by Adair's office had 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.

Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr said in an interview that the fire marshal's office accepts all of the auditor general's recommendations and promised they would all be implemented within a year.

“The people of the province can have confidence in that office,” Lohr said. “We are confident in their ability to do their work.” He added that he would ensure the office is fully staffed. According to his department, three vacant positions have been filled and one vacancy remains.

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