Whether you agree or disagree with allowing basement apartments and rooming houses to exist in our cities, the fact is they are there, often illegally done to the benefit of the owner and to the detriment of the occupant. For many living in them, they are unaware of the legality of the spaces they are living in, and violations often exist in the most crucial aspect of the living space - fire safety.
Last fall, in one of many illegal basement suite fires, Alisha Lamers, 24, died in a fire while sleeping in her apartment in the Dufferin Grove neighborhood of Toronto. The landlord was charged with 10 violations of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.
This could have been avoided easily in a city like Toronto, where since 2000, the by-law allows most homes to have legal basement suites as long as it was built according to the code, met fire safety compliance, and registered with the city. If the landlord had taken the required steps to make his unit legal, he would have been required to implement 4 very important measures of fire safety, which of course he didn't. In the charge against him, many of the fire safety measures discussed below were non-existent in his unit, and ultimately resulted in this tragedy.
Here are the 4 important aspects to fire safety that must be implemented for every secondary suite, whether in the basement or 2nd floor.
This is about creating a box enclosing the suite and confining a fire within the unit. This is accomplished with proper fire ratings on vertical and horizontal separations such as walls, ceilings and doors. This can ultimately control the size of a fire.
2. Detection and Early Warning
Functional and correct installation methods of smoke alarms are crucial for ensuring that occupants are aware of a pending fires early on so evacuation or extinguishing of the fire can take place immediately. Depending on the configuration of the suite, the detectors may or may not need to be interconnected between the units.
3. Means of Egress
This is often the most difficult to achieve as it hinges a lot on the structure of the property, but is perhaps the most important. Providing an acceptable escape in the form of doors, windows and a clear path for occupants is crucial for fire safety.
This is similar to Containment in that it takes into account what measures to take should a fire occur. In addition to containing the fire, suppression uses external measures to mitigate and possibly extinguish fire. These may include equipment such as in-duct smoke detectors which shut down the home's blower fan, preventing the spread of smoke and fire in the ducts. It may also include sprinkler systems, although that is rare in original single family dwellings. If a dwelling does use sprinklers, many of the other fire safety requirements are typically less stringent.
There are many factors involved in creating a legal secondary suite, including property and occupancy standards, spatial requirements, natural ventilation and natural lighting. But fire safety is by far the most important to ensure occupants are safe in both the original home and the second unit.