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