On Tuesday, Airdrie City Council tackled concerns brought forward by user groups of the Town and Country Centre, specifically regarding recent fire code changes which came into effect last month. 

The changes to the fire code, which are changes that are applicable province-wide, and not just Airdrie-specific, were one of the topics that a focus group of repeat facility users underlined as an issue during an in-person focus group that was held at the end of April.

"To address these concerns, staff has worked together with [and] has set a commonly used floor plan that will be developed [and] drawn to scale and reviewed for code compliance by an architect," said Clay Aragon, Manager of Culture, Heritage and Events with the City.

Aragon added that while the majority of the events that are booked at the city facility are not problematic, there have been problems arising when customization of an event exceeds the allowable occupancy.

"... And not necessarily by the occupancy of the building, but by types of activity or events that the residents want to use for it," he explained. "In the last few years, we have seen an increase in the number of cultural events... and trying to maximize the use of the space [for] fundraiser events."

Airdrie Fire Chief Mike Pirie, alongside Deputy Fire Chief of Prevention and Public Education, James Kostuk also attended Tuesday's council meeting, aiming to provide clarity as to how the current fire code is applied and the mechanisms that govern the code. Fire Chief Pirie noted that for customers the application of the fire code may be difficult to navigate. 

"... It can be confusing and optically appear that the code is not being applied appropriately or consistently. For example, you could look at an occupancy permit that says 300 people and after an event review, the fire code may land on 200, which is the actual legal application based on usage," Chief Pirie said.

He also clarified that the difference between building codes and fire codes is also nuanced. While building codes are not retroactive and apply to the construction, which in the case of the T & C would be 1977, the fire code is regarding the maintenance of the use of said building.

"They [the codes] are complementary and coordinated and the fire code itself is retroactive. When a change is made, it goes backwards. When applying code enforcement, our preference is education over penalty and generally looking for ways to make it easier."

The City's Fire Chief also noted that the issues surrounding the T & C, are much wider and should be considered within the realm of indoor events, as the fire code regulations pertain to all indoor events. 

"We want consistency to the highest degree possible. Standardization of event planning is not just a requirement of the code as of May, it is also good for everyone who goes through this process, predictable clear and as few steps as possible. When it comes to [the] application, fire plans are a legal requirement for facilities that hold indoor events."

Chief Pirie also added that currently, each plan is done one at a time, which is time-consuming.

"The staff approach being proposed... Is an efficient way to add consistency to events, predictability from a fire department perspective and allow for easier decision-making. The 2023 Fire Code was enacted May 1 in Alberta and one of the requirements is an event review done by a professional such as an architect, who will apply the exact rules every fire department is using for a specific event and setup."

He said that this kind of standard approach will require less fire department involvement and give a clarification for the expectations when applying the fire code to events.

"Having clear expectations removes barriers and setting them upfront removes what might look like bureaucracy but is compliance. It frees up Fire Protection Officers to conduct inspections and enhances consistency when holding these events."

Councillor Candice Kolson asked about what fire safety plans will look like going forward, to which Chief Pirie noted that fire safety plans are part of the 2023 fire code.

"Yes, fire safety plans are there. The difference is who does them; it's not those safety officers any longer doing it. It's a higher professional architect and engineer, who builds those standardized plans for that facility," Chief Pirie explained. "We don't need to be a part of it, as long as we're using those standardized plans. I like this change in the code, it might seem like a burden; [but] it's good for us."

Councillor Tina Petrow made a note of the customization portion of the floor plans, asking how the process would look with details being customized.

"As we move into the custom events... Are we also developing a floor plan where the background is locked, the elements are locked, but movable, so that people can manipulate this floor plan to make sure that what they are trying to fit in that room can fit in that room?"

Steve Ward, Team Leader of Community Facilities Management at the City of Airdrie stated that is not the intent.

"We are getting CAD [Computer-Aided Design] drawings that can be changed and edited like you're suggesting. But what we're planning on doing is using the floor plans to maximize a fully occupied facility. So, we can start taking pieces out, they end up being placeholders. If you've got a banquet table or a silent auction table, you can take that out and use it for a reception table, you could use it for a photo booth, or you can change the use of it, it's more of a placeholder."

He added that when the layout begins, that's when the issue of applying the fire code comes into play.

"... That's where we get into applying code and making sure that our aisles and the distances between furniture and everything still maintain compliance," he added. "It might require the engagement of an architect at that point or possibly the Airdrie Fire Department to start reviewing some of those changes because they could even inadvertently start violating code if we're not applying it properly."

While the code is now fully implemented as law, Councillor Kolson expressed worry about those customers who have booked the facility within the next several months.

"I just went through this, and so did the [Airdrie] food bank. What about the people who get a notice a month before their events that they thought was status quo, that now they have to change everything? Where's the culpability of the city?"

Chief Pirie acknowledged that it may be difficult for upcoming events with a retroactive fire code.

"I think the best thing I can do, is offer as much assistance as we can, internally to try to help our customers and review things promptly, while we're working this out," he said. "The code is active, and we have questions, our safety code officers have questions." The best commitment I could give to this council is, a commitment from the fire department to help to assist during this time, while we start looking towards standardization."

Chief Pirie noted that the fire department does not specialize in event planning, but rather in fire code compliance and ultimately enforcement. Councillor Kolson, however, said that there may be pushback from those who are in the process of planning events that are caught up in these changes. 

"It's a huge weakness right now that you have, in filling that facility; and confidence from the people who are trying to book the facility or trying to plan," she said. "You guys aren't event planners, I understand, and I appreciate that you're going through the proper way and you're getting the floor plans drawn to scale. I've even tried to do that myself and it's difficult to do. But you have people who are planning now; be prepared for that pushback and please give them grace, because you could potentially really negatively affect their planning process moving forward." 

Mayor Peter Brown noted that the reason council had undertaken this discussion was because it seemed that a lot of user groups had almost simultaneously approached council members with complaints.

"I hope going forward that we just keep an eye, and we make sure we're proactive with our communications with those. I didn't realize it [the fire code] changed a month ago," he said. "I heard that these challenges started two or three months ago. It's hard to understand how a code they just got into place a month ago, was an issue three months ago when the code hadn't changed for three years."

Mayor Brown also noted that he can't recall if an event at the T & C had ever triggered an evacuation.

"But that's all I'd ask; keep everybody who is our users, because I'd hate to see in a year that we've lost business going to Crossfield or other places because maybe they're not doing the things we're putting in place."

Another concern raised by customers was that there appeared to be confusion about user fees. DiscoverAirdrie asked The City of Airdrie to comment on this.

In an emailed response, Ward stated that the user fees and charges for the Town and Country Centre and other City facilities are set according to the User Fees and Charges Policy, which is based on a review of comparable facilities within a 30-minute radius, as well being based on market averages.

"In our comparison to like facilities, we have found that there is not a significant difference in our year-over-year rate, but rather in the time booked. These charges make sure that our clients are supported better throughout their booking and event process. The Town and Country Centre has staff that set up, takedown and conduct the cleaning of the facility, where this is normally a responsibility of the client in unstaffed facilities. The time that staff spend directly supporting a rental at the Town and Country Centre (usually four hours) is included as part of the rental fees and charges even though it may be time when the client is not present in the facility."

Ward added that in 2022, pricing was based on a market average of $160 per hour and in 2023 was $163 per hour.

"The market average hourly rate for 2024 is the same as 2023. However, clients previously would rent and pay for 12 hours, and staff would spend an additional four hours outside of that setting up, taking down and cleaning the facility. This was changed last year to include set up and tear down into the rental time, so a 12-hour rental would include eight-hour event time and an additional four-hour setup/takedown/cleaning."

When asked to comment on the fire code issues, Ward wrote that the fire safety code has always existed.

"We are only trying to make it easier for our users to understand the application of the code by working with the fire department to ensure that the way we set up and use the facility meets fire code requirements. So, there have been changes to how we set up/use the facility, for example, not propping fire doors open, changes to how egress routes are maintained etc. We are making enhancements to the booking process of the Town and Country Centre by working with some of our regular customers. Part of these enhancements will be to provide our users with AFD-approved floorplans abiding by the fire safety code.”

The Town and Country Centre was built in the late 1970s when Airdrie's population was 1,500 residents.

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