Landlord jailed for fatal fire
She becomes first to be imprisoned over detector

A Toronto woman has become the city's first residential landlord to be jailed for neglecting to maintain smoke detectors, after her tenant died in a fire.

Cuc Chau was sentenced to 15 days in jail to be served on weekends, fined $2,000 and placed on probation for 18 months following her guilty plea to four Ontario Fire Code offences.

Chau had initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were laid after the provincial fire marshal's office investigated a blaze at a two-storey home at 225 Atlas Ave., in the Oakwood Ave. and Vaughan Rd. area, on Jan. 29, 2001.

The two-storey building, which neighbours say is divided into three apartments, has been renovated since the fire.

During the trial, investigators from the Ontario fire marshal's office testified that tests conducted on a smoke detector recovered from the debris indicated that it contained no batteries, and that David Tran's life could have been saved had the smoke detector worked.

People convicted of smoke-detector related offences can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed up to one year for each infraction.

Ontario fire marshal Bernard Moyle said that to his knowledge, "this will be the first time in Ontario that an individual will serve time in jail for failing to provide or maintain working smoke alarms.

"As indicated by the penalties in this case, the fire service and the courts are taking the matter of smoke alarms seriously," Moyle added. "Missing or inoperative alarms will not be tolerated."

He stressed that homeowners who fail to install and maintain the smoke detectors required by law could also face jail, as the requirements apply to every home in Ontario.

"Smoke alarms are critical to provide early warning if a fire occurs in a home. ... They are required by law to be provided to all tenants and maintained in good working condition."

Deputy Chief Terry Boyko of the Toronto fire department also welcomed the decision, delivered Monday by justice of the peace Marcel Bedard at the Keele St. provincial courthouse.

"This case sends the message that as homeowners and landlords that rent properties to others, we have a responsibility to protect those that live in our houses, whether we own the house or rent it to others," Boyko said. "These detectors cost so little and are so easy to operate and maintain.

"It troubles me that we have to pursue these cases in the courts."

Boyko says smoke detectors are crucial because most fatal home fires occur at night when people are asleep, "and often victims don't wake up.

"When fire breaks out, the smoke alarm, functioning as an early alarm system, provides precious time to escape and can significantly reduce your chances of dying in a fire."

The department advises people to install smoke detectors on every level of the home, and inside and outside each sleeping area, and to replace weak or dead batteries immediately.

Toronto Fire Chief Alan Speed vowed to seek tougher penalties against building owners who fail to maintain smoke detectors after a dark week in December, 1999, when seven people died in Ontario in three separate fires. Smoke-detector related charges were laid in two cases.

The decision may be a first in Canada.

Deputy Chief Ron Ritchie, who is in charge of fire prevention for the Vancouver fire and rescue service, says that in 31 years on the job, he has never heard of anyone in Canada being jailed in a similar situation.

Ritchie, who says combining smoke detectors and sprinklers has drastically reduced fire-related deaths in his area, plans to contact Toronto prosecutors about the decision.

"I am quite surprised (by the jail term)," he said, noting he would like to see similar sentences in Vancouver.

John Conley of the Calgary fire department says judges may be reluctant to jail landlords and homeowners in such cases, "because they see this as the terrible result of an accidental situation."

But he says judges need to realize that their decisions can help save lives by reminding landlords "that their mandate is to ensure that the units they rent out are fire-safe."

A member of a local tenants' organization was pleased to hear Chau got a tough sentence, but expressed concern that action wasn't taken until someone died.

"Fifteen days isn't going to do anything for the (dead) tenant," said Dan McIntyre, a program co-ordinator for the Federation of Metro Tenants Association. "But maybe it will give the message to landlords that they're responsible for their property.

"Hopefully landlords will read this story and check all their smoke detectors."

Patricia Miller, communications director for the Fair Rental Policy Organization, a province-wide group that educates landlords and tenants about their responsibilities, said the court's decision was right. "It sounds like justice has been served," Miller said.     -   by Harold Levy  Toronto Star     22 February 2002    With files from Stephen Petrick and Henry Stancu


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