In the days after a March 16 fire destroyed an Old Montreal apartment building, killing seven people and injuring nine, the city’s fire department quietly ended a lengthy moratorium on investigations of evacuation routes, a policy that internal documents show had prevented a review of the building’s safety years before the disaster.
The fire department instituted the moratorium on Oct. 26, 2018, according to an internal memo obtained by The Globe and Mail. The move put a pause on “requests for expertise” related to fire evacuation routes.
Inspectors for the fire department send those requests to the department’s technical officers when they think a building is non-compliant with certain safety requirements. The red flags could include things such as dead-end hallways or an insufficient number of exits. After the technical officers weigh in, the fire department can send a building’s owner correction notices, which demand action on whatever deficiencies were identified. If the owner doesn’t comply, the matter might go to court.
In practice, the moratorium meant the fire department had stopped enforcing these safety standards throughout the city, according to two department officials with direct knowledge of how inspections were conducted.
The Globe is not naming the officials, because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The moratorium memo says non-compliant evacuation routes already flagged by inspectors would automatically be given a one-year grace period. It says there is “no need to do an immediate follow-up on violations, because a new deadline will be assigned.”
The memo says management made the decision because of a lack of staff training. It also cites a lack of defined indicators for compliance with regulations, and other issues. The fire department referred questions about this and other matters to the City of Montreal, which declined to answer.
“An action plan will be put in place and we will inform you of the steps to be deployed,” the memo says.
Dead-end hallways and an insufficient number of exits were both issues a fire department inspector named Geneviève Tremblay had identified as early as 2009 in the Old Montreal building, located at the intersection of Place d’Youville and Du Port Street. There is no record in documents obtained by The Globe of those issues ever having been fixed.
The documents show that in 2018, Ms. Tremblay tried again to focus the fire department’s attention on the building. She requested a review of potential problems with the building’s evacuation routes: the lack of a second exit on the third floor and a dead-end hallway on the second floor. The request was approved by two fire department officials in July, 2018, but denied by a third in September, 2021.
The technical officer who denied the request cited the moratorium enacted by management three years earlier as his reason.
The two fire department officials who spoke with The Globe said the department lifted the evacuation-route moratorium, as well as a different moratorium on enforcing some regulations related to alarm systems, in the days after the Old Montreal blaze, as a direct result of the catastrophe.
Robert Rousseau, a section head within the fire department’s prevention division, appeared to confirm this in an April 3 e-mail to staff, which was obtained by The Globe. “Following the major fire of March 16, a crisis unit was set up to begin Operation Vulcain,” he wrote.
He said inspections had already been carried out, and that inspectors had been instructed to flag “as many non-compliances as possible.” They were also instructed to, among other things, complete training related to evacuation routes and fire alarm systems upgrades, and to flag violations related to those issues during inspections.
“This is a sensitive operation in a highly publicized context. We rely on your usual discretion and professionalism,” Mr. Rousseau concluded.
The fire department’s moratorium on enforcing some alarm-system regulations – another area of concern in the Old Montreal building – began in 2021 and perhaps even earlier, the documents show.
On June 3, 2021, two division heads at the fire department, Daniel de Vries and Marcel Deschamps, sent staff a memo announcing a “temporary halt to legal proceedings relating to the upgrading of fire alarm systems.”
The memo asks inspectors to “no longer address the issue of upgrades during the initial inspection.” This was necessary, Mr. de Vries and Mr. Deschamps explained, because of the municipal court’s decision to “no longer accept our submitted files due to insufficient evidence.” The city did not answer questions about what was meant by this.
“As soon as acceptable solutions are in place, we will send them to you,” the memo concludes.
The 2018 moratorium memo on evacuation routes hints that alarm-systems enforcement might have been suspended earlier. “Just like the files concerning fire alarm systems, a structure must be put in place to minimize the impacts and better structure our actions,” it says. The city did not answer a question about when the initial decision to suspend alarm enforcement was made.
Documents obtained by The Globe show that Ms. Tremblay had found that the Old Montreal building’s alarm system was not compliant with safety regulations in February, 2019. There were several subsequent interventions with the building’s owner, but the alarm system was still allegedly non-compliant as of Nov. 20, 2020, and the fire department started legal proceedings, according to a report sent to fire department officials.
Another document shows the file was closed on Feb. 3, 2021. There is no record of these alarm-system issues being corrected in any of the documents obtained by The Globe, and there are no related municipal court records.
Ms. Tremblay declined an interview request. The City of Montreal declined a request for an interview with the city’s fire chief, Richard Liebmann, about the lack of enforcement. “Most of these are court cases, which is why the city will not be commenting,” spokesperson Kim Nantais wrote in an e-mail.
The Old Montreal building’s owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, did not return multiple requests for comment. His lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, said he would not comment, considering the fact that Quebec’s chief coroner has ordered a public inquiry into the deaths. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Mr. Bergevin told The Canadian Press in March that the building’s alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested. Regarding the emergency exits, he said the building had a complex layout. But he claimed it had always been deemed compliant.
Mr. Benamor’s run-ins with inspectors began soon after he bought the building in 2009.
Municipal court records show that he was charged with three infractions relating to evacuation routes in the Old Montreal building in 2010, among other alleged safety violations. He was found guilty of having non-compliant firewall protections and not displaying evacuation plans on every floor, and was fined a total of $714.
But he pleaded not guilty to charges related to non-compliant evacuation routes and alarm systems, which were withdrawn in March, 2013, by Judge Martine Leclerc. No further charges have since been filed on these matters at the municipal court.
As the alleged violations were being processed by the fire department, the Old Montreal building’s file followed a parallel process with the Régie du bâtiment du Québec (RBQ), which regulates and enforces building construction and safety in the province.
The RBQ sent a correction notice to Mr. Benamor on Dec. 27, 2013, about three alleged violations: the lack of a second exit on the third floor, a dead-end hallway on the second floor, and flammable materials used in the interior lining of the exits’ walls and ceilings. Mr. Benamor was granted a 30-day period to correct them.
These safety issues were first identified in November, 2009, by Ms. Tremblay, of the fire department, and a city inspector, records show. Ms. Tremblay sent a complaint about them to the RBQ in 2011.
The RBQ has refused to share any documents related to the building. RBQ spokesperson Sylvain Lamothe previously said the building’s file had been transferred to a Crown prosecutor. He said the RBQ would not comment further out of respect for the investigation.
The RBQ correction notice was released to Ms. Tremblay after she filed an access-to-information request. In the RBQ’s June 26, 2018, response to her request, it says the building is still non-compliant, nearly a decade after Ms. Tremblay’s initial inspection. “There is a possibility of prosecution in this case,” RBQ official Mélanie Drainville said in the response, which The Globe obtained through a third party.