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Fair Go: Change in fire safety rules around doors could affect tens of thousands of businesses

Tens of thousands of business owners may inadvertently be operating with non-compliant buildings following a Fair Go investigation into fire exits.

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Some deadlocks are considered illegal because someone could accidentally lock people in. Source: Fair Go

The investigation found padlocks and deadbolts are now considered non-compliant with current building codes. Fair Go also revealed that at least one council is asking a Dementia Care facility to take the locks off despite the risk to patients in their care.

This follows a precedent setting court case in Palmerston North. The case a lock that has the potential to lock someone in a building would not comply even if the building is declared vacant.

The Fair Go investigation began when Timaru gym owner Tim Bean complained his front door had failed the annual building warrant of fitness. The door has a padlock on it and despite there being three other fire exits in the building, it still failed to comply.

"When we first received it we thought you are having a joke, having a laugh," Tim Bean told Fair Go while looking over correspondence with fire protection company FFP. FFP are a Christchurch based company who issue him with his warrant.

Tim Bean’s gym is cleared nightly by a security firm before the front door is locked with the non-compliant padlock.

“There will be tens of thousands of building owners in the same situation. You should be able to take reasonable precautions to lock your building at night,” he argued.

FFP, who are currently refusing to issue Mr Bean’s warrant of fitness, say the building code has a fundamental principal.

“If you present yourself at a door that's on the exit route, you should be able to open it from the inside without the use of a key, or any other security device,” FFP’s Corporate Services Manager, Charlie Loughnan told Fair Go.

Mr Loughnan says even if there are other exits or the building is empty, you still can’t lock it with a padlock or deadbolt.

“If for example, there's a fire in the middle of the building, and you dive toward the exit door. If that door doesn't open, you've now got to go back past the fire to the other exit.

“No problem locking a building if unoccupied that’s fine but having a lock that could be locked while the building is occupied or relying on a procedure (to empty the building). Then you have a problem.

Mr Loughnan says a court case between the Ministry of Business and Enterprise and the Palmerston North City Council had changed building fire safety rules.

The case centered on a door to some shared toilets at a Turkish restaurant in Palmerston North. The owners put a lock on the door so customers from other retailers who share the toilets couldn’t enter their premises when they were closed.

The Palmerston North City Council said the lock didn’t comply. The building owners complained to MBIE who said the lock could stay. That decision was overturned when the council appealed in the District Court.

Mr Loughnan says that decision changed the landscape for fire safety and made his job tougher.

“The courts have said we can’t have procedures anymore. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“The goalposts aren't moving so much is that they're narrowing. It's like we're trying to kick a football through a croquet hoop.

Palmerston North City Council say the court action was a first for the council. The council’s chief customer officer Chris Dyhrberg told Fair Go safety should come before security.

“We felt fairly strongly that it was a very important public safety issue and we were pretty determined that MBIE had got it wrong.

“You say, well, the building's not going to be occupied. Well, what if someone, you know, misses something? What if someone makes a mistake, they don't follow the right procedure.”

FFP’s Charlie Loughnan told Fair Go, a commentary, which had previously been included with the building code, had been taken out meaning there was little room in the rules for common sense.

“We've got councils actively telling us that Dementia Care (units) have to remove coded locks from their exit doors because they have to be open them normally on the way out of the building …. which is a disaster.”

Mr Loughnan said child care centres were in a similar situation with door handles installed out of reach of children. These would struggle to comply he told Fair Go.

MBIE told Fair Go the court decision was final and they had no opportunity to appeal.