Basement Apartment Fire Safety
Many young people will rent basement apartments. The problem is that some homeowners will not take all the appropriate steps to ensure that the unit complies with the legal requirements, or ensure that they are kept in compliance with the Fire Code of Ontario.
The first step, if you are renting is to determine whether the unit is a “legal basement apartment”. In this regard, call the municipality. Was there a building permit for the conversion, when was that, and was a final inspection ever conducted or is this project “still in the works”?
Let’s assume that you are already there. What precautions should you take to protect yourself?
Your unit should have its own door. That seems obvious, but I make this point simply because many don’t. The landlord/homeowner stays upstairs and provides you with your privacy, however, that’s not quite enough.
You need this door for “fire separation”. If there’s a fire upstairs, you don’t want it charging downstairs. You need some “notice”. That adds to your margin of safety.
This door should be solid wood or metal.
Ceilings and Walls
Your unit should have ceilings and walls which meet the appropriate standards for fire resistance. This means it doesn’t burn too fast. Wood panelling would not work. Drywall should be fine. But, make sure that there are no gaps.
How are you going to get out if there is a fire?
Hopefully, that will ordinarily be your usual route into your unit. However, it’s going to be dark, the electricity will be off, it will be smoky and it will be very difficult for you to breathe. So, can you manoeuvre up the stairs? Are there boxes, toys, shoes, boots, old newspapers and garbage bins?
The obvious answer here, is this area should be clear so you can exit quickly without tripping. Side stairwells are often used to accumulate (or store) refuse for the next week’s garbage pickup. That is unacceptable.
Hopefully, you have a second route somewhere. If not, do you have a window?
If you have a window, could you get out through it? First, try it out, if you can. Do you need to break the window? In that case, go to a hardware store, buy an inexpensive hammer and a small crowbar, both for less than $20 and leave them there. Don’t ever use them for anything else. Just leave them there, that’s part of your margin of safety.
Get a heavy blanket and place it near that window. If you break the glass, then there will be sharp glass edges everywhere, so this blanket will come in handy.
Next, keep the window exit free from debris on the outside of the house. That means, if there is a window well that it doesn’t fill up with leaves in the Fall, and no one piles snow in front of it in the Winter.
And, make sure that it gets you “out of the house”. You don’t want to find that you have crawled out of the basement only to be trapped under a wooden deck.
This requires you to circle the house and inspect the windows. Sometimes, there are numerous basement windows and you might think that the one you see must be yours. No, that’s one from the furnace room. Yours is blocked behind ……
So, go inside, get a flashlight and then circle the house and see if your flashlight illuminates some place which would provide an easy exit. And, watch this area carefully over the different seasons. This is not for storing boats, trailers, or piles of wood for the fireplace in the winter months.
Fire separation and good exits are the keys to your safety.
Notice About the Fire
The sooner you know the better!
This means fire alarms, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors (alarms). All three must be audible. Are they all 25 years old?
Do they still work?
Fire safety requirements now emphasize the need to have all the smoke alarms wired together. This means that if there is a fire in the kitchen upstairs, your alarm will go off.
Also, get an alarm(s) for your own unit, which you own and replace the batteries yourself. This is an additional but inexpensive ($20) precaution for your own safety.
Don’t Sleep with the TV on
Sometimes, it’s easy to fall asleep with the TV blaring. At some point, in the middle of the night, it’s turned off. This isn’t a good routine.
You need to be able to hear alarms (in other areas of the house), shouting and so on. This is your own built-in auditory safety measure. Take out the earplugs for music, turn off the stereo and the TV.
You will likely die of carbon monoxide poisoning before you will be burned by the fire. So, the ALARM is a must. Buy one at the hardware store. That’s another $20.
Have a Charged up Cell Phone
Not much point having a cellphone if you charge it up in the morning in the car on the way to work. Charge it, so that it is available. You have to be able to call 911.
Your Family or Someone Else’s Family
This is the fundamental problem!
If your parents are upstairs and you are in the basement, in the case of a fire, they are getting you out.
However, if you’re renting from strangers, they are getting themselves out FIRST. Then, once they are free of the fire, out on the street and safe, they will call 911.
They’re not mean, and, they are concerned for your safety, that’s why they called 911 for you. BUT, family first!
That’s the reason why you need these additional safety measures to protect yourself.
Yes, get one. It will cost another $20, but remember you’ll likely be unconscious at the time when you would actually have to use one to protect yourself from a raging fire.
Where do you live?
If you are out in the country, then the fire department could be 30 minutes away.
In populated municipal areas, this should be 5 minutes or so. The ultimate question is:
DO YOU HAVE 5 MINUTES?
The Fire Escape Plan
This is what you need. Inspect the building, figure out your escape plan, buy the tools that you need.
Everyone is concerned about the law. Most people seem to know that a building must comply with the requirements of the Ontario Building Code when it is built, and it need not be modified thereafter, just because requirements may become more stringent. Changes are not retroactive.
Ontario also has legislation dealing with Fires and Fire Safety. It is the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997. Regulation 213/07 is the “Fire Code”. It is retroactive. It is designed to protect people in the case of fires and prevent fires from occurring in the first place.
Essentially, it deals with containment, means of egress, fire detection, alarms, and electrical safety.
Be careful, obey the law and live safely.
Brian Madigan LL.B., Broker