Set Smoke Detector Policy to Protect Residents, Avoid Liability
You are required by HUD to have at least one smoke detector in every unit at your site. It's more than good common sense to take this safety step; smoke detectors can save lives.
Having the required smoke detectors in place also could save you down the road in a legal battle—but only if you have proof that you equipped your units with working smoke detectors. You can accomplish this by having a smoke detector policy that includes a section for your residents to sign to acknowledge that the detector is in place.
Why is the signed acknowledgement important? Suppose a fire broke out in a unit, but the smoke detector did not alert the resident. If the resident's personal property was damaged or the resident was injured, he or she could sue you, claiming that the smoke detector was faulty or wasn't kept in working order. A signed acknowledgement could be your only proof that the required smoke detector was installed and working.
Court Case Proves Point
A 2003 court case illustrates the value of the signed acknowledgement. Residents at a New York site sued their unit's owner for injuries they suffered from a fire. The residents claimed that the owner had been negligent because he failed to install a smoke detector in their unit. The owner asked the court to dismiss the case without a trial.
An appeals court did, in fact, dismiss the case. The owner was able to produce for the court a form signed by the residents acknowledging the installation of the smoke detector. The owner further showed the court an affidavit from the manager identifying the signatures on the form as those of the residents. The court stated that these documents demonstrated that the owner was not negligent [Fields v. S and W Realty Assocs., 2003)].
Make Detector Checks Part of Inspections
Assisted housing experts recommend using standard unit inspections as a time to check that smoke detectors are in working order and to secure your residents' acknowledgement. Give the resident a copy of the policy and ask him to sign it at:
Move-in inspection. HUD requires that the resident be part of a move-in inspection before signing the lease. This is a good time to have the smoke detector acknowledgement signed.
Annual or other regularly scheduled inspection. These are opportune times for you to have the resident re-acknowledge that there is a working smoke detector in the unit.
At Renton Housing Authority in Renton, Wash., maintenance staff also use repair visits to check smoke detectors, says Thomas Tasa, the authority's executive director. “We inspect the detectors every year and replace the batteries,” Tasa explains. “But whenever a resident puts in a request for a repair, we take that opportunity to check that the detector is working.”
At move-in and other inspections, the Renton Housing Authority also gives residents its smoke detector policy, which must be signed by both the resident and the site owner. It requires the resident to be responsible for keeping back-up batteries in the unit. And to discourage residents from removing smoke detector batteries for use in their own personal devices, the policy imposes a fine of up to $200 and possible lease termination if the resident fails to maintain the smoke detector as outlined in the policy. “We have the threat of a fine to help gain their compliance,” Tasa says. “And our managers or maintenance staff will replace the batteries annually.”
You can adapt a policy similar to Renton's for use at your site: See our Model Policy: Have Residents Acknowledge Smoke Detector Policy.
Renton's policy appears to work well, according to Tasa. The authority has never faced a situation where a resident has tried to sue for fire-related damages or injuries because a smoke detector didn't function.
Thomas Tasa: Executive Director, Renton Housing Authority, P.O. Box 2316, Renton, WA; (425) 226-1850.
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