Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mike Butler: Landlords and smoke sensors

Four deaths in two house fires two weeks ago got tongues wagging about smoke sensors, landlords, and property warrants of fitness, but the war of words raged in a largely fact-free environment.

The Fire Service’s investigation manager Peter Wilding demanded compulsory smoke alarms in rental properties after three young people died in a house fire in Hamilton -- even though it was not known whether there were smoke detectors in that dwelling and what caused that fire.

Wilding’s call brought further demands from the crack-down-on-landlords brigade that not only should landlords install smoke sensors, they should ensure that sensors continue to function and be responsible for replacing batteries.

One extreme sentiment aired was that if there was a house fire death in a rental property and if there was no smoke sensor, the property owner should be charged with murder.

To bring some basic facts into the smoke alarm furore, a check with fire service and housing statistics reveals:

1. A total of 16 fire deaths in 2013.
2. 3205 structure fires in residential houses, flats, home units and apartments during 2013.
3. 1219 of those fires were to do with carelessness with a heat source.
4. Smoke alarms were present at 1220 of those fires.
5. Of those with smoke alarms fitted, 338 alarms failed to operate.
6. The trend is towards fewer fires, with 4287 house fires in 2002 and 28 deaths.
7. New Zealand has 1.7-million occupied dwellings.
8. New Zealand has 1713 professional career firefighters.

These are statistics for all dwellings, not just rental properties. Only 28 percent of dwellings in New Zealand are rental properties.

In other words, fires occurred in 0.002 percent of occupied dwellings, fires are mainly caused by the carelessness of the occupants, 38 percent of those burned dwellings had smoke sensors, and 27 percent of those smoke sensors failed to function.

The main target of fire-safety campaigns should be to urge occupants of all dwellings to take care with the use of heat sources. The Fire Service has produced a number of effective television adverts with that message.

And, with 61 fires a week throughout New Zealand, the 1713 fire fighters throughout the country are not very busy with house fires, so have a lot of time to educate on fire safety.

The hyperbole award in the recent debate would go to Otago University's Housing and Health Research Programme co-director Michael Baker, who breathlessly told Radio New Zealand that: "Poor housing is killing and hospitalising New Zealanders on a grand scale. We have around 250 preventable deaths a year from unintentional injuries around the home with 17,000 hospitalisations and social costs of around $13-billion a year".

To be fair, Baker, a crusading academic who apparently believes regulation and cracking down on landlords would cure all social ills, was talking about all injuries at home, not just those related to fires.

Andrew King, who is the executive officer of the Property Investors Federation, pointed out that even if the landlord is made responsible for installing and maintaining smoke sensors, and even if the battery is replaced during a six-month inspection, there is no way to tell whether that battery will remain in that smoke sensor from the day after the inspection until the next inspection.


david said...

I would hazard a totally speculative theory that most of the cases where an alarm failed to operate would be where the occupants got fed up with the alarm going off every time they burnt the toast and disabled it.

cfm said...

In Western Australia whenever a house is sold it must have hard-wired smoke alarms - fitted by an electrician.
Sorts out the dodgy placement (burnt toast alarms) and dud batteries.

Allan said...

It follows therefore that if landlords should be charged with murder then the tenants should be jailed for removing the batteries !!

Unknown said...

I have fitted smoke detectors in my rental houses only to find tennents have removed them and they cannot be found and on replacing again the same has happened.

paul scott said...

Somehow I ended up with about 8 smoke detectors in the home. Its silly.
Council regulations when EQC came here would have us with a smoke detector every few meters.
When i am away the tenants pull out the batteries, when they beep incessantly running down.
The older detectors do not work properly. I am upgrading to a few photo electric detectors , rip out and paint over the old stuff away from the kitchen and fire place.

I left a note to tenant, I have eyes in the smoke detector. that didn't help

Anonymous said...

In parts of Australia, fire brigade staff door-knock all homes, and they offer to install smoke detectors (free of charge) in any house that doesn't have them fitted, and they check the batteries and functionality of any existing alarms. Any batteries required are also provided free of charge.

I'm sure that if any occupant complained that their smoke detectors were too sensitive, that could also be sorted out during the inspection.

There should be plenty of times that fire service personnel can be made available to do this work, but it obviously requires funding.

However, if this system was adopted in NZ, one would expect a significant drop in fatalities, injuries and property damage, and the cost of attending and fighting fires, so there would surely be a substantial off-set in the costs.

If batteries are removed or swapped over with dead batteries between visits, that should warrant an official visit from a supervisor, who would lay down the law.

So why don't we simply do this? At least it could be trialled.

Anonymous said...

I have installed and continually re-installed smoke detectors in all my rental properties. Have had tenants variously remove batteries, throw away detectors, put them in cupboards for safe keeping and unplug the battery but leave the detector looking ok for inspections. Have had to repair fire damage to 6 properties in 30 years caused in all cases by tenants carelessness with either the stove or a heating source. No one died in any of these fires, dont know if the smoke detectors were functioning or not at the time.
The only way to stop fire deaths is to remove people from houses, maybe the property investors bashing brigade will have tenants live with them and also provide the 24 hr smoke alarm supervision they suggest.

Peter said...

NZ Fire Service response to blog... 28% of NZ housing stock is rental. 55% of all house fires and 89% of all fire deaths are in rentals. Almost all fire deaths occur away from the location where a fire started. Early warning of a developing fire is essential to minimising fire damage and/or escaping safely.
In 12 months the NZ Fire Service installed 15,952 smoke alarms, changed 8,243 batteries and relocated 2,152 incorrectly position alarms... for free. Recommended smoke alarms have batteries that last the life of the alarm (typically 10 years). Landlords should install and check smoke alarms during property inspections. Tenants are liable for any property damage including interference of smoke alarms. Good placement reduces false alarms.
Peter Wilding; Manager Fire Investigation

Dwayne said...

Does anyone know how many of the fires were related to smoking? And how much of the alarm interference is caused by residents wanting to smoke indoors?

I have to say the right type of detector makes a world of difference.