Tenants renting high-rise Auckland apartments are disabling smoke alarms with plastic cling wrap to avoid $1000 fines for accidental fire call-outs when cooking.
The dangerous practice of deactivating smoke alarms, mainly by people renting small, cheaper flats, is widespread, according to property letting experts who say it's a "disaster waiting to happen".
They raised the issue with the Herald in the wake of last night's tragedy where at least 12 people died in a blaze that destroyed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower building in London.
Cling film, duct tape and carrier bags are some of the methods used to prevent the life-saving devices from going off in Auckland multi-level apartments, the Herald has been told.
While rented apartments are subjected to regular inspections by building managers or letting agents, the smoke alarms can easily be briefly reinstated for the checks.
Two Auckland property specialists spoken to by the Herald said the culprits are usually international students, or people fond of Asian-style cooking, and who are often renting smaller flats.
In some of Auckland's bigger apartment blocks, the practice could affect "dozens" of properties, said one source involved in the rented property market.
"We've discussed it amongst ourselves lots of times, but with that London fire it just makes you think there's a disaster waiting to happen in these places," said the man, who did not wish to be named.
"It's such a common practice that maybe building managers get so fed up with alarms going off that they just think, leave it.
"But it's a practice that needs to be highlighted so somebody does something about it."
Andrew Murray of Auckland-based Apartment Specialists said he was seeing it "constantly" in rented "lower-demographic shoebox apartments".
He also found it was students, using woks and hot-plates and cooking techniques that created a lot of smoke, that were guilty of the "incredibly dangerous" moves.
"Most buildings will have a $1000 fine if the fire brigade gets called, even accidentally, so they cover the smoke alarms because they don't want to be fined," Murray said.
"While there will be routine checks by building managers, it's pretty hard to stop because they take them down and then put them back up again."
The New Zealand Fire Service said it was "very concerned" to hear reports of people covering their smoke alarms.
A spokeswoman said working smoke alarms are crucial for giving people early warning to escape in the event of a fire.
"When we come across any of these practices we report to the relevant authority: Councils for commercial properties as it makes the building non-compliant with the building code and tenancy services for rental properties," she said.
"We want to remind all people to have working, long life photoelectric smoke alarms throughout their home, and a well-practiced escape plan so everyone can escape as quickly as possible."
From July 1 last year, all rental properties require smoke alarms.
Landlords and tenants face fines of $4000 and $3000 respectively for failing to comply with regulations.
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment says landlords are responsible for ensuring that smoke alarms are always in good working order, meet the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) requirements, and have batteries at the beginning of each new tenancy.
It's illegal for tenants to damage, remove or disconnect the alarm. They are also required to replace expired batteries in smoke alarms and let their landlord know if there are any problems with the smoke alarms as soon as possible.
"If a landlord becomes aware that the tenants are interfering with a smoke alarm, they should talk to the tenants in the first instance to explain to them how important smoke alarms are and that tenants have obligations under the RTA," MBIE's tenancy compliance and investigations national manager Steve Watson said.
"The landlord can also issue a notice to remedy advising the tenants formally that they are in breach of their obligations under the RTA. If the tenant behaviour continues, they can then apply to the Tenancy Tribunal."