Council-Funded Homeless Hostels Breached Fire-Safety Standards in Multiple Ways, Records Show

In July 2019, a fire-safety assessment found significant breaches of fire-safety standards at a Dublin City Council-funded homeless hostel at 32 North Circular Road, a three-storey red-brick terraced house.

The hostel didn’t have a valid fire-safety certificate and, among other issues, people were sleeping in inner bedrooms where the only way out was through a kitchen and the bedrooms had no fire alarms.

Some hostel doors weren’t fire doors and some outer escape doors didn’t open easily.

The boiler room wasn’t fireproofed and the fire alarm and fire extinguishers hadn’t been tested. “In some instances there were electrical cables exposed,” says the assessment, which was released last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

More than two years later, a fire-safety certificate was granted for the building according to Dublin Fire Brigade records.

Dublin Fire Brigade previously confirmed that it had issued enforcement proceedings on at least two other homeless hostels in the city.

At the time, council managers downplayed the seriousness of homeless hostels not having valid fire-safety certificates.

“It is not unusual for buildings across the city, not to have a fire certificate,” they said. “This is a common miss-conception and is central to the current debate on standards in relation to temporary emergency accommodation.”

The council initially refused to release records showing how many emergency accommodation homeless hostels were subject to fire brigade enforcement proceedings, and why.

But a list of what records existed, released in November 2021 after an earlier Freedom of Information request, showed there were emails about fire safety at nine hostels.

The release of the information last week follows two refusals to release these by Dublin City Council, and two successful appeals to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a day centre for homeless people, says homeless hostels are significantly higher-risk environments for fire than apartments.

Questions remain as to why the Department of Housing and Dublin City Council would fund accommodation that doesn’t meet fire-safety standards, she says.

“Why are we not applying zero tolerance for issues of safety?” says Santoro. “The safety of the accommodation needs to be uncompromising.”

Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries as to whether it has changed its procedures for ensuring fire-safety measures are up to standard in homeless hostels.

On North Frederick Street

Documents released last week also included a fire-safety assessment for another homeless hostel, at 9 North Frederick Street.

In February 2021, Dublin Fire Brigade said it had issued fire-safety enforcement proceedings in relation to a homeless hostel at 9 North Frederick Street – as well as a nearby hostel at 13 North Frederick Street.

The fire-safety assessment for number 9, carried out in October 2019, said: “It is our opinion that the doors within the building are not fire doors” and “there is extensive fire stopping required”.

There was only one way in and out of the upstairs bedrooms, and the windows were not suitable for rescue if there was a fire, so, given the numbers living there, the building needed a new fire escape, said the assessment.

The assessment also recommended reinforcing walls and replacing doors, and said that the gas boiler should be moved from the stairway.

The building was granted a valid fire certificate in September 2021, according to Dubin Fire Brigade.

No Fire Certs

According to an undated document, outlining the fire-safety status of nine hostels in the city, two of those had fire-safety certificates and it appears that others were operating without valid fire certificates at the time

One other hostel had an opinion of compliance from a fire safety consultant, it says.

Two interim fire-safety management plans were created in November 2020, it says. That’s around the same time that Green Party Councillor Janet Horner asked council management whether the hostels on North Frederick Street had fire-safety certificates.

Horner says she hopes the council has changed its approach since then. “Fire safety, especially in buildings housing vulnerable people, and managed on behalf of a local authority, is of the utmost importance.”

The council should ensure that all buildings are up to standard, Horner says. “We need to have complete transparency so we can have confidence in the standards in place.”

Said Horner: “We should never be waiting for a repeat of something like Grenfell to wake up and get serious about fire safety.”

Downplaying Problems?

Land registry records don’t show who owns the building at 32 North Circular Road.

In June, Dublin City Council refused a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of all private companies running homeless hostels in the city. That’s commercially sensitive, they said, and releasing it could hinder negotiations.

A council spokesperson said in March 2021 that plans were in place to bring all homeless hostels up to fire-safety standards.

“The DRHE is satisfied that all the occupied properties listed are currently compliant with Fire Safety standards,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing at the time, in response to a query about a specific list of hostels.

But it’s now clear that just a few months earlier, that hadn’t been the case.

Emails between Dublin City Council staff in December 2020 show that council staff didn’t know in one instance – the hostel’s name is redacted – whether the hostel owner was willing to make the necessary changes to meet fire-safety standards.

“Will this work be accompanied by a regularisation fire safety certificate application?” wrote Philip Daughen, of Dublin Fire Brigade.

“Yes if the owner’s agree to do the works!” replied John Durkan, deputy director of the DRHE.

When in March 2021, Dublin City Council issued a report to councillors on fire safety in homeless hostels, it said that it was common for buildings not to have fire certs, which are often issued after works are completed.

“The requirement for a fire certificate came into force with the Building Control Acts, for new buildings or development, material changes of use to existing buildings and or some alterations or extensions to existing buildings,” it says.

But Santoro, the CEO of the Mendicity Institution, says that the council documents released last week show that there were real problems with fire safety in some hostels.

There is a lot of talk about fire safety in apartments at the moment, says Santoro, but homeless hostels are even higher-risk environments. “They are completely different.”

Many of her clients talk about sleeping in overcrowded conditions in hostels, she says, and it’s clear that many more people sleep in rooms than would be allowed in a private home.

Old fire certificates that may have been issued when a building was something else, like a guesthouse or private home, are irrelevant, Santoro says. “If you double the occupancy it creates a hazard.”

Many people using homeless services have mobility issues and council staff don’t routinely ask about that when placing someone in an upstairs bedroom, she says.

Some might smoke too, they often aren’t familiar with the building layout and they could have other issues like mental health or addictions.

“We are talking about the standards that are set by the DRHE and the Department of Housing when paying for accommodation that you put vulnerable people in,” she says.

“Why are we not applying zero tolerance for issues of safety?” says Santoro. “It’s pretty depressing actually.”

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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