Proposed changes to Fire Prevention Act good for development, advocates say

A construction project near Yellowknife's Chateau Nova hotel taken in 2022.  The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs is proposing changes to the Fire Prevention Act. Some of those additions include an appeal board for the fire marshal's decisions on building plans and the ability for the fire marshal to delegate responsibilities.  (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)
A construction project near Yellowknife's Chateau Nova hotel taken in 2022. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs is proposing changes to the Fire Prevention Act. Some of those additions include an appeal board for the fire marshal's decisions on building plans and the ability for the fire marshal to delegate responsibilities. (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)

The Northwest Territories' Fire Prevention Act is getting a revamp and business and community advocates say the changes will be good for development.

The still unopened Fort Good Hope seniors' centre and a sports arena in Hay River are among the buildings delayed at the hands of the fire marshal's office, along with a number of development projects that never get off the ground, according to Yellowknife real-estate investor Rob Warburton.

A bill to amend the Fire Prevention Act, suggests granting the fire marshal authority to delegate its powers and, hopefully, speed up the process.

Warburton said this has the potential to alleviate project reviews and approvals getting bottlenecked with the fire marshal.

"We're a small place, we often have one person doing one job, so the ability to delegate is exciting because in theory they could delegate it to another jurisdiction to complete, or contract it out," he said.

"They have options to maintain capacity or if they've got a lot of stuff coming through their office, they can meet that demand."

Emma Grunwald/CBC
Emma Grunwald/CBC

Another key addition in the Act to Amend the Fire Prevention Act is an appeal board.

As it stands, the only recourse for disagreeing with the fire marshal's office is an appeal to the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories.

"If you disagree with a sprinkler drawing, it's like a big sledgehammer," Warburton said of the current process.

Results from a public survey of the Act and possible changes indicates that N.W.T. residents are in strong support of a level of appeal between the fire marshal and the Supreme Court.

That's something that Yellownife Mayor Rebecca Alty, also president of the NWT Association of Communities (NWTAC), said she hears from residents too.

Alty presented Wednesday at a public meeting to discuss the proposed amendments with the standing committee of government operations.

In addition to the appeal review board, she told the committee the main thing she's hearing is a need for more clarity from the fire marshal's office.

Katie Toth/CBC News
Katie Toth/CBC News

Alty later told the CBC that the NWTAC hopes once the amendments to the Fire Prevention Act are complete that the assembly will look to enact a Building Standards Act — legislation that exists in every other Canadian jurisdiction.

There is a National Building Code of Canada that regulates construction standards and municipal bylaws but Alty said a territorial code would create uniformity across communities in the N.W.T.

"What's happening in Tulita, what's happening in Colville Lake, they don't have the departments to create the legislation and these bylaws themselves," Alty said.

"The GNWT is the one building in a lot of communities and they're saying they're following their Good Building [Practice] document but it really should be legislation and it should be clear and then builders know what they have to do and municipalities know what they have to do. That clarity is really important when you build."

The same public survey results state that different interpretations of building code have led to delays, litigation and additional expenses for construction projects in the N.W.T.

The majority of survey respondents "strongly supported" that legislation as a top priority for the next legislature.

Survey respondents also indicated a want for more clarity on project designs at the forefront to avoid lengthy back and forths with the fire marshal's office later on.

The proposed amendments to the Fire Prevention Act is expected to be discussed during the next legislative session in February.