Muskoka Lakes has been forced to close the majority of its Community Centre kitchens due to fire safety concerns.
At the Finance Committee meeting in December, a report from the Public Works department stated that due to safety concerns the majority of Community Centre kitchens in Muskoka Lakes would need upgrades to comply with the Fire Code. There are 16 functioning kitchens in the 12 Community Centres in Muskoka Lakes. In March the Township was informed by the Fire Department that 10 of the 16 kitchens were in violation of the Fire Code.
At the Tuesday council meeting, Fire Chief Ryan Murrell stated that the fire department was recently made aware that many of the Community Centre kitchens produced grease-laden vapour and smoke without proper ventilation in violation of the Fire Code. Murrell stated that as the Fire Code has continued to be updated in recent years older buildings like the Community Centres may fall out of compliance.
The compliance issue involves a mix of residential and industrial stoves. According to Murrell the shared nature of the kitchens increases the risk factor. Combining with the attached assembly space at the centres means that increased safety measures must be taken to reduce the risk of a fire, according to Murrell. Measures that are required to bring the kitchens into compliance involve upgrades to exhaust systems and the installment of a wet-certified fire suppression system.
Councillor Ruth-Ellen Nishikawa spoke out in support of the kitchens. She stated that members of the public have been unhappy with the decision and the lack of alternative options for community events.
“That doesn’t settle well with people. And in fact, comments were made back to me that I guess this council doesn’t trust us,” Nishikawa said.
Nishikawa stated that she believed that there were alternative solutions to the problem which would not require a complete closure of the kitchens. This includes unplugging deep fryers or increased signage to alert residents of what things to avoid to maintain fire safety. Nishikawa stated that the benefit these kitchens and Community Centres provide is of importance to the social community and should be considered.
“I just look at Walker’s Point and their potluck dinners, for some of those senior citizens that come out that is their only outing in many cases that month. There’s a lot of benefit and our council should recognize that benefit,” Nishikawa said.
Nishikawa went on to say that she trusts local residents in their uses of the centre kitchens and that the benefit provided by the centres is worth the risk.
“I’m willing to take that risk because I’ve been around for 30 years and I haven’t seen a Community Centre on fire yet,” Nishikawa said.
Murrell acknowledged the concerns of Nishikawa regarding the impact on the community, but he stressed that bringing the buildings into compliance with the Fire Code is for community safety.
“I empathize with what the councillor is suggesting in terms of how the community space is used. And I felt the same way when I first addressed these parts of the code, but I can tell you that over time we’ve learned a lot about fire safety and about usages of buildings. And with the infrequent users that are using this building, it is the safest measure to place commercial kitchen suppression systems in place for this building. Is the safest thing that we can do for our community,” Murrell said.
Murrell stated that many of the stoves have already been disconnected but have not been removed from the Community Centres. He said that until the removal had been completed the fire department would not conduct an inspection to ensure that centres were in compliance.
Nishikawa later reiterated her earlier concerns and stated that she was concerned that council was leaving the community without the services that they paid for.
“I can’t stress enough that we just keep asking for stuff for them. We want money, but we don’t want to give back and that really concerns me,” Nishikawa said.
Fire safety is not the only issue noncompliance could have on the township. Noncompliance with the Fire Code could jeopardize Township insurance. An investigation done on the centre kitchens found them to be uninsurable in their current conditions.
Councillor Rob Bosomworth asked Murrell if the quick removal or disconnection of certain stoves and increased signage could quickly bring the buildings into compliance so they could stay open. Murrell responded that this would help with compliance, but that any cooking which generated grease laden vapour and smoke would require ventilation to be in complete compliance.
In response to calls for different solutions which would keep the centres open, Mayor Peter Kelley stated that any course that was taken against full compliance with the Fire Code would carry risks.
“We would be doing so at the Township’s risk. Financial risk, because presumably we wouldn’t be doing it without the benefit of any insurance coverage,” Kelley said.
Murrell did state that he would accept a decision from council to disconnect but not remove the stoves. But he also stated that this was against township policy in dealing with commercial kitchens, which normally are required to remove any item not in compliance. Morrell stated that the nonremoved of a noncompliance item could be considered negligent.
Kelley stated that setting a precedent that the council holds itself to a different standard than it holds commercial businesses. He also stated that risking the buildings by holding them against the Fire Code is improper. Kelley acknowledged that taking measures against what some in the community wish is difficult, but actions towards compliance must be made.
“None of us like to disappoint people. But we have an order outstanding against us and I’m not going to vote to disregard that,” Kelley said.
The compliance issues leave a service hole in the northern portion of the Township, as it lacks a central hub which can be quickly upgraded to maintain service. Director of Public Works Ken Becking requested that council chose a Community Centre in the Northern portion of the township to function as a hub moving forward. This would potentially involve a feasibility study, which according to Becking would cost an additional $50,000. In the short-term Becking suggested council allow staff to upgrade the kitchen in the Walker’s Point Community Centre to reopen a Centre kitchen in the northern end of the Township.
After debating ways to connect further kitchen upgrades to long-term Township planning, council unanimously passed the motion which gave staff the authorization to begin upgrades on the kitchen in the Walker’s Point Community Centre.
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