$2312 for burnt toast: Residents slugged with huge false alarm fees

The MFB has invoiced owners in one apartment block more than $6000 in callout fees related to food-related false alarms.

The MFB has invoiced owners in one apartment block more than $6000 in callout fees related to food-related false alarms. Photo: TND

Imagine being fined more than $2300 for burning toast.

Then imagine having to pay such an exorbitant fine multiple times within a matter of months.

Apartment owners in Melbourne’s inner north know how frustrating it is to shell out thousands of dollars for such simple, everyday mistakes.

Over the past 12 months, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has invoiced owners living in one apartment block more than $6000 in callout fees related to false alarms triggered by burnt food or smoke from cooking.

Because the building is covered in flammable cladding, an expert panel comprising members of Moreland City Council, the Victorian Building Authority and MFB ordered owners in July 2018 to directly link their fire alarms to the MFB’s system as part of an Emergency Building Order.

The recommendation, which means firefighters automatically respond as soon as an alarm is triggered, was one of many put forward by the panel to keep occupants safe.

But the alarms are so sensitive that even the whiff of burnt toast is enough to trigger them – and every time that happens, firefighters rush out to their building and often charge owners up to $2312 for doing so.

Owners say it’s yet another blow in their battle with cladding.

“I’m scared to cook toast unless I’m standing over it,” one owner, who declined to be named, told The New Daily.

“If we get a hint of smoke while cooking, we have to open all the windows, [but] it’s the middle of winter.”

The owner doesn’t blame the MFB, but believes all the fines should be waived – partly because the alarms are so sensitive, and partly because living in a building with flammable cladding has already put owners under undue stress.

“I don’t blame the MFB, they’ve had a hell of a year. But the situation we’re in is equally untenable,” the owner said.

My biggest worry is people covering up or disabling their alarms because they’re afraid of being billed.”

In letters seen by The New Daily, the building’s Owners Corporation has repeatedly warned owners to minimise false alarms by:

  • Using the range hood when cooking, ensuring it is vented to the outside, and cleaning it regularly
  • Closing the bathroom door when showering as “steam has been known to activate the alarm”
  • Closing the laundry door when drying clothes for the same reason
  • Never leaving the cooking unattended.

The Owners Corporation has also written to the MFB asking it to reassess “future incidents on an individual basis”, warning that the MFB’s callout fees “may result in residents blocking up the sensors which could be an extremely dangerous situation”.

It has even paid contractors more than $2000 to intensively clean all the smoke detectors in the common areas to minimise false alarms.

The New Daily understands the owners have been asked to install additional heat detection systems as part of a separate building notice.

Once this has happened, they will have the option of installing a system that gives owners 30 seconds to override false alarms before the MFB is alerted, which should limit callouts related to false alarms.

The New Daily asked the MFB whether it thought the fines were fair given the circumstances.

A spokesperson confirmed to The New Daily that the MFB had responded to the building eight times in the past six months and sent invoices related to four incidents.

But they also said the Owners Corporation had been given multiple opportunities to respond and provided late submissions to all four invoices sent, with two final notices later issued.

building fire cladding

The 2017 Grenfell tower fire in London caused 72 deaths, and led to widespread international concerns about flammable cladding. Photo: AAP

“Invoices were issued to the site’s Owners Corporation in relation to four separate incidents involving burnt food or smoke from cooking at this address since January 2020,” they said.

In some circumstances where an invoice has been issued, MFB may make exemptions on compassionate or other grounds, and fee recipients are encouraged to contact us to discuss their options.”

Firefighters have responded to 13 false alarms at the building over the past 12 months and waived fees on some occasions.

The New Daily also asked the VBA if it thought the fines were fair given the circumstances, and whether it had considered covering the costs of the fines given they were related to a recommendation included in an Emergency Builder Order.

A VBA spokesperson said: “Maintaining the safety of residents and building occupants is our highest priority.”

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