01/11/2012 11:18 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT

N.S. official challenges auditor's claim that fire inspections weren't done

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is challenging the auditor general's assertion that public safety had been compromised for years because fire inspections weren't being carried out at many buildings, including schools and hospitals.

The Labour Department's acting deputy minister told a legislative committee Wednesday that the inspections were being done, but many of them simply weren't being recorded.

"We believe that public safety has been protected throughout, even prior to the auditor general's report," Jeff Conrad told the public accounts committee.

"But we would agree with the auditor general that our ability to prove that has been very, very difficult. ... We failed to appreciate, at my level, the degree to which we weren't tracking and doing that work."

Conrad said the department has dealt with six of the 25 recommendations in a report released last May by auditor general Jacques Lapointe.

The senior bureaucrat said it would take up to two years to respond to the rest of the recommendations.

Conservative critic Allan MacMaster said the NDP government is moving too slowly, noting that it has yet to appoint a new fire marshal more than 18 months after the last one retired. Robert Cormier served as fire marshal for more than 16 years before he stepped down in May 2010.

"The NDP have been dragging their feet and public safety is being put at risk as a result," MacMaster said in a statement after the committee adjourned.

In his report last year, Lapointe found the Office of the Fire Marshal, which is overseen by the Labour Department, had no inventory of the buildings that require fire safety inspections.

As well, he found 47 per cent of the inspections required weren't completed by the fall of 2010, and his audit couldn't determine whether safety deficiencies found during inspections were addressed.

Lapointe concluded the problems at the fire marshal's office could be traced to a "failure of leadership" at the Labour Department, which had ignored similar warnings in two previous reports.

Conrad said his department has completed a database of public buildings, and the province has spent more than $330,000 in the past year improving staffing levels at the fire marshal's office, which now has 14 full-time staff.

After the committee meeting, Lapointe said he was impressed with the response to his recommendations, but he rejected Conrad's suggestion that the real problem was just the paperwork.

"It's such a positive thing that they're doing that there's no need for them to get defensive about it," Lapointe said in an interview.

"The fact is that when we did the audit we asked them about those things and they told us they were not done ... We're quite used to people telling us, 'Oh yea, we did it. We just didn't write it down anywhere.' The fact is that a lot of inspections that were supposed to be done, were not done."

The Labour Department says the number of buildings that require inspection by the Office of the Fire Marshal is about 4,500. But a spokesman stressed that some buildings on the list will eventually be removed, including Transport Department salt sheds.

The list does not include buildings that would normally be inspected by municipalities.

Acting fire marshal Harold Pothier said 50 per cent of the province's elementary schools and hospitals have been inspected to date, and the plan is to complete the job by the end of March.

Pothier said his inspectors are now completing about 120 inspections per month.

He said he and his staff are working on a plan that will set priorities for buildings that require more frequent inspections. The so-called risk framework should also be completed by the end of March.

Conrad said the department is producing monthly progress reports and has developed performance standards for staff and standardized inspection guidelines and new checklists.

Last June, a month after Lapointe's report was released, Labour Minister Marilyn More said fire inspections were required at 17 hospitals and 201 schools across Nova Scotia.