The Sectional Titles Act, 1986, includes under the functions of bodies corporate an obligation to insure the building or buildings in a scheme and to keep them insured to the replacement value against fire and such other risks as may be prescribed. The fact that the Act specifically mentions the risk of fire is significant. While developers and owners can change the content of the scheme rules, they cannot remove or adjust a body corporate's obligation to ensure that the scheme has adequate fire insurance.
But insurance is an arrangement in terms of which a financial institution will pay the body corporate an amount of money if there is in fact a fire. Good management suggests that the trustees and managing agent, with the assistance of owners and occupiers of sections, should take proactive steps to ensure that there will be no fires that damage the buildings. So what can you do to prevent damage by fire?
The first and most obvious fire prevention step is to make sure that there are fire extinguishers, in good working order, located close to any places where fires can be expected to break out. A conduct rule could oblige owners and occupiers to keep fire extinguishers in the kitchens and next to any open fireplaces, such as barbecues / braais, in sections or in exclusive use areas. Where such a rule exists, the body corporate will be entitled to access the section or exclusive use area to ensure that the owner or occupier is in compliance.
The second issue that springs to mind is old and unsafe electrical wiring within sections and on exclusive use areas. It would be perfectly reasonable for a conduct rule to impose an obligation on owners and occupiers to ensure that the electrical wiring within the areas they own and control is kept in good order and condition so as to reduce the risk of fire. Furthermore, there is no reason the body corporate, which has a clear interest in fire–prevention measures, should not require access to sections and exclusive use areas on a periodic basis, perhaps once every five years, to inspect the electrical wiring and have a suitably qualified electrician issue a certificate confirming that it is in good order.
An electrical supply system is only as safe as the appliances that are plugged into it, so the body corporate should also seek to encourage owners and occupiers not to overload plug points and to ensure that the wiring on all appliances is properly insulated and otherwise safe.
Trustees often ask whether it is within the body corporate's authority to insist that smoke alarms be installed within sections. The prescribed management rules deal extensively with the formalities required to install improvements on common property, but they do not cover improvements within sections. This means that if there are already smoke alarms installed within sections, then the body corporate can ensure that they are kept in good working order. However if there are no smoke alarms, there is no clear provision in the Act or the prescribed rules that entitles the body corporate to insist that these be installed. A new rule would be required for this purpose.
The prescribed conduct rules prohibit keeping or doing anything that could increase the rate of the premium payable by the body corporate on any insurance policy. Examples are owners who store old newspapers or do woodwork in garages, where the papers or wood chips in the air are a real fire hazard.
Outside sections and in the exclusive use areas perhaps the most important fire prevention issue is to avoid the buildup of materials that can act as fuel for a fire. While recycling is a most commendable practice, large piles of cardboard boxes, papers and plastic containers should be contained so that they are not likely to be set alight.
Finally, and not only to annoy smokers, we mention that one of the most obvious cause of unplanned fires is the cigarette butt carelessly flicked over the balcony railing. One can outlaw smoking on the common property but not within sections or on exclusive uses areas. The prescribed conduct rules do deal with cigarette butts, but only from a littering perspective. However a body corporate can make rules that prohibit owners and occupiers of sections from disposing of lit cigarettes in a manner that could cause a fire either within the section or on any part of the common property, and it may be worthwhile to do just that!
Adjunct Professor Graham Paddock is an authority on sectional title law and practice. He has compiled several online short courses presented in conjunction with the University of Cape Town. Graham is the author of four publications and provides legal support and advice online. For more information please contact Emma on 021 447 4130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit paddocks.co.za.