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Nova Scotia fire marshal's office faces intense scrutiny over damning report

Nova Scotia's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa on July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Nova Scotia's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa on July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Nova Scotia's fire marshal faced tough questions Wednesday about a recent report that found his office was putting the public at risk by failing to properly manage fire safety inspections.

Douglas MacKenzie appeared before the legislature's public accounts committee to explain why the fire marshal's office had failed to act on repeated warnings from the auditor general about its lack of appropriate oversight going back to 2001.

MacKenzie blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages for the failure to keep up with inspections.

"We were unable to get into buildings (and) we had to adapt our inspection process," McKenzie said, referring to how COVID-19 restrictions had an impact on the work of the deputy fire marshals who normally conduct fire safety inspections.

"They covered off where they could."

But members of the all-party committee pointed out that problems involving inspection backlogs and lack of oversight predated the pandemic. And when MacKenzie was asked how many inspections were still overdue, he didn't have an answer. He said the number would be provided later in the day.

Brendan Maguire, a Liberal member of the committee, said the backlog had to be eliminated: "We need assurances from this department that it won't happen again, even though there's a history of it falling behind .... It can be a matter of life and death."

Tom Taggart, a Progressive Conservative committee member, was equally blunt: "There have been insufficient actions taken to address previous reports spanning decades," he said. "The current report from the (auditor general) asserts that the office of the fire marshal is failing to adequately protect the public from fire safety risks."

The fire marshal also noted problems with his office's antiquated data management system, which is due for replacement. He said there are records to show inspections have been completed, but he confirmed there was a lack of oversight.

"We couldn't effectively show the auditing (work) that staff were doing," he said, adding that none of the files had time stamps to show when an audit had been completed.

Paul LaFleche, deputy minister of the Municipal Affairs Department, told the committee that auditor general Kim Adair was "quite rightly frustrated" with the department, which oversees the fire marshal's office. "We have an accumulation of a long history here."

LaFleche was also asked about how long it would take to erase the backlog.

"I could tell you ... I'm going to fix it all," he said. "But there's been previous deputies saying the same thing .... We're going to get the software we need."

LaFleche stressed that the department has made progress in implementing recommendations from the auditor general.

"I'm confident that the office of the fire marshal is completing those inspections as required and the public can feel they are safe, as safe as one can be given the inspection regime," the deputy minister said.

Adair's report focused on facilities serving vulnerable people, including schools, daycares and long-term care centres. Auditors found that 40 per cent of fire inspections on those buildings were completed late.

The audit, which covered a two-year period from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021, noted that inspections involving 12 of 30 buildings sampled were conducted between five and 445 business days past deadline.

The auditor general said she was told about the problems caused by the pandemic, but she said her office "could not verify that was a justifiable explanation because there is so little data and management information to support it."

As well, she found that the fire marshal's office didn't keep a complete list of buildings requiring inspections. On Wednesday, LaFleche said that problem had been fixed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.

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