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Officials search at the scene of a fire in a heritage building in Old Montreal on March 27.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Montreal fire department officials now say some inspections were suspended during a years-long moratorium on the enforcement of safety standards uncovered by The Globe and Mail in May, contrary to what they previously stated.

Fire Chief Richard Liebmann told a news conference on May 16 that “never at any time” did the department pause evacuation-route inspections or any other type of fire inspections.

But The Globe obtained an internal memo sent by Chantal Bibeau, the fire department’s deputy chief for prevention and risk management, to her staff on Oct. 23 that contradicts that.

The memo, obtained through an access-to-information request, says “the so-called ‘construction’ evacuation-routes inspections (MEVAC) were taken up again in the context of Operation Vulcain,” implying that they had been suspended before. Operation Vulcain is an intensive enforcement campaign rolled out in response to a fire that killed seven people in March in Old Montreal.

Asked about the contradiction, Ms. Bibeau and Mr. Liebmann conceded in a recent joint interview that some inspections had, in fact, been suspended years earlier.

Ms. Bibeau said in the interview that only “maintenance” evacuation-route inspections, which look for things such as temporary obstructions, continued. But “construction” evacuation-route inspections, which look at factors like the layout of a building and the number of exits, were suspended during a moratorium instituted in 2018.

Montreal’s fire department faced intense scrutiny when The Globe found it had instituted moratoriums on the enforcement of some evacuation routes and alarm system regulations. This prevented legal proceedings against the owner of the now burned-down Old Montreal building where several safety issues were noted in multiple reports between 2009 and 2020, years before the fatal fire. There is no record of some of these issues ever being resolved.

The Globe reporting prompted Mayor Valérie Plante to ask the city’s comptroller-general to review the department’s policies. A criminal investigation into the arson is continuing and a public coroner’s inquest will resume once the police probe is completed. Victims’ families and others have also filed lawsuits against the city, citing poor enforcement.

The Oct. 23 memo also says the comptroller-general’s report has been completed, but Ms. Bibeau and Mr. Liebmann declined to comment on its contents.

The City of Montreal declined to share the report despite multiple requests from The Globe. Spokesperson Gonzalo Nunez instead referred The Globe to the access-to-information division, which denied the news organization’s request because “its disclosure might well affect the outcome of judicial proceedings.”

Asked whether the moratoriums were a mistake, Mr. Liebmann, fire chief since 2020 – after the evacuation-routes moratorium was instituted but before the alarm-systems moratorium was added in 2021 – said he would not judge his predecessors’ policies.

“The people who were there at the time made decisions based on the data they had,” he said. “I want to look ahead to see how we can improve the situation.”

The chief defended the department’s decision not to make public the fact that the inspections and enforcement had been suspended.

“Imagine that we publicly announce that for technical reasons we are going to stop issuing speeding infractions – what will happen? People are going to do what they want on the roads,” Mr. Liebmann said, drawing a parallel with non-compliant building owners.

The Oct. 23 memo formally updated several policies that Ms. Bibeau said in the interview were already put into practice in the wake of the March fire and after a broader review of the department’s policies that began in 2022.

The memo notes that enforcement of evacuation routes and alarm systems was taken up again with Operation Vulcain, as The Globe previously reported, and officially lifts these moratoriums for all inspections.

The memo also discusses three previously undisclosed moratoriums that, like the others, would be best described as “suspensions of activities,” Ms. Bibeau wrote, based on the comptroller-general’s report.

First, she wrote that after a regulatory change in 2019, the fire department had stopped legal proceedings against owners of buildings with non-compliant smoke detectors to give them time to make required changes. Smoke detectors now must be “equipped with a non-removable lithium battery.”

The memo says the suspension was lifted, meaning legal proceedings would resume more than four years after the policy change.

But two other suspensions were maintained.

In 2009, the fire department stopped the systematic validation of buildings’ fire-safety plans, which detail evacuation procedures and other emergency measures. These are required by law for a variety of places including hospitals, schools, movie theatres, detention centres and some office and residential towers, according to Martin Nobert, president of the Association of Fire Prevention Technicians of Quebec.

The department continued to check fire-safety plans for seniors’ residences and buildings where high-risk industrial processes take place, City of Montreal spokesperson Audrey Gauthier said in an e-mail.

In 2010, the fire department also stopped validating capacity cards, which limit the number of patrons in a bar, for example.

Mr. Liebmann and Ms. Bibeau said these moratoriums would hold because fire-safety plans and capacity cards can be validated by private-sector professionals.

They said the fire department prefers to focus on activities that can have a greater impact on the safety of Montrealers, such as inspections.

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