The State Government should properly test smoke alarms in public housing properties every year, the Deputy State Coroner said today in the wake of four deaths in two separate fires.
Evelyn Vicker examined the deaths of public housing tenants Cozette Pickering and her sons Rhys, 11 and Shayden, 8, who perished in a house fire in Karrinyup in April 2007, as well as blind man Mr Egan who also died in a blaze in his Geraldton home in June 2007.
A main issue at the inquests in January this year was whether smoke alarms at the properties were working properly or installed at all at the time of the fires.
Ms Vicker found in Mr Egan’s case, a tamper lock screw had been removed from the smoke alarm, and speculated someone who was staying at the property could have disabled the device which may have been irritating them.
She said a smoke alarm had been fitted in the Pickering house as of 2002, before the family moved in, but there was no trace of one after the fire. Ms Vicker said Mrs Pickering, a drug user and hoarder, could have sold the smoke alarm.
Ms Vicker assumed Mrs Pickering did not alert the Department of Housing and Works to a lack of a smoke alarm, because she was more concerned about passing inspections than drawing attention to problems.
Mr Egan died after he fell asleep and his cigarette ignited the foam mattress he was lying on.
Ms Vicker found the fire which killed Mrs Pickering and her sons was likely started by the boys, who were known to play with fire, using a gas camping stove. The family had been using gas camping stoves and candles in the months leading up to their deaths after the gas and electricity was cut because Mrs Pickering had failed to pay the bill.
Neighbours trying to save the family could not get into the house because of Mrs Pickering’s hoarding, with boxes piled up against the windows.
Ms Vicker called on DHW to test smoke alarms and residual currency devices at the same time during annual property inspections, allowing for the proper testing of the fire detection devices.
She also recommended DHW, the Department for Child Protection and FESA work together on strategies for tenants whose hoarding creates a fire risk, especially where children and people with disabilities are involved.
Ms Vicker acknowledged DHW’s records were “chaotic” and inspectors were under pressure, but also noted that the department had made its inspection process more rigorous.
The inquest was told that the HUGS scheme, which helps people in financial hardship struggling to pay their utility bills to avoid them being disconnected, was introduced in 2008 as a direct result of the deaths of Mrs Pickering and her sons.
“This would have been of huge benefit to the Pickering children. If the children had not been required to use candles or camping equipment for the purposes of daily living the risk of the fire would have been diminished,” Ms Vicker said.
Ms Vicker said Mrs Pickering and her sons had been living in “utter chaos”, with the mother of four having poor parenting skills and despite loving all her children wanted to “experience life as a teenager” and spent more than $200,000 in two years – “almost certainly on drugs”.
A probe by the Child Death Review Committee was critical of the then-Department for Community Development’s handling of the Pickering family’s case.Ms Vicker said despite there being more of a focus of family support than child protection, she did not see the need to comment further on those criticisms.
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