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Aug 21, 2023

A fire-safety products company in New Brunswick has lost its licence after scaring potential customers during in-home sales demonstrations that included setting fires and encouraging them to come into close contact with the flames.

Atlantic Health and Safety has been deemed "unsuitable to be licensed" under the Direct Sellers Act, based on complaints of "high-pressure sales and use of dangerous and fear-inducing tactics," the Financial and Consumer Services Commission announced Tuesday.

The Dieppe-based company, which sells products such as fire alarms, fire extinguishers and emergency preparedness kits, is the first direct-seller vendor in the province to have its licence revoked "in recent years," spokesperson Marissa Sollows told CBC.

Numerous consumers contacted greater Moncton's Office of the Fire Marshal last winter to complain about Atlantic Health and Safety, according to the commission's written decision.

Consumers reported, for example, that salespeople used flammable liquid in a frying pan to light a fire inside their home and then asked them to use a fire blanket they were selling to put out the fire, said Sollows.

When one consumer voiced concerns about having a fire set inside their home, the salesperson allegedly replied, "It's OK, we do this all the time, don't worry."

In addition, consumers alleged if they declined or hesitated to purchase thousands of dollars worth of products, the salespeople made statements, such as, "Are you willing to put the lives of your children on the line here by not having this in your home?" and, "I don't feel comfortable leaving your home without having our technician complete his installation. Think of your kids."

In one case, when a woman said $8,000 was a lot of money and she wanted to think it over, the salesperson called their supervisor and put them on speakerphone. The supervisor told the complainant "they did not feel comfortable letting the salesperson leave without installing the system because if [the complainant's] house burned down, the [company] would feel responsible and that [the complainant's] life was in danger," the provincial regulator's decision states.

The complainant "felt as though a threat had been made toward them."

The commission's director of consumer affairs, Alaina Nicholson, found the company "not only put the individuals at risk of personal harm and injury but put the safety and security of their homes at great risk and was neither competent nor trustworthy."

Allowing the company's licence to continue would "reduce public confidence," she said in her seven-page decision.

Nicholson also revoked the licences of all the company's salespeople.

CBC attempted to reach Atlantic Health and Safety for comment on Wednesday but the company's voicemail is full and email submissions on its website aren't working. The company did not respond to a Facebook message.

On its website, the company says its mission is "to educate families about the devastating effects of home fires and other home safety issues."

Sollows says nothing prevents Atlantic Health and Safety from selling its products in another province. The commission only has jurisdiction in New Brunswick. It would be up to other provinces and territories whether to license the company, she said.

Atlantic Health and Safety was targeting consumers in the greater Moncton area through Facebook, according to the commission. In some cases, a representative would inform consumers they had won a home safety kit, but in order to receive the kit, a salesperson would have to come to their home to give a presentation on the company's products.

The commission began its investigation in March, when the fire marshal raised "significant concerns" about the company.

The fire marshal also issued a memo to all fire chiefs and fire prevention officers in the province at that time, warning of the company's practices.

"In January 2023, the Office of the Fire Marshal was made aware of an enterprise in the greater Moncton area, which may be providing homeowners with misleading or incorrect information regarding smoke alarms or other life safety devices," the memo advised.

In addition to complaints about unsafe product demonstrations and high-pressure sales, the fire marshal cited false or misleading statements regarding code-compliant systems and high price-point systems of between $5,000 and $15,000.

The commission emailed Atlantic Health and Safety in April to inform the company about the complaints and staff's recommendation to cancel its direct-sellers vendor licence. The email also advised Atlantic Health and Safety of its statutory right to a hearing before the commission made a decision on its licence.

But that email, a follow-up email and a letter sent via registered mail all went unanswered, according to the commission, so the company waived its right to a hearing and the director rendered her decision based on the information on file.

"Companies and individuals working in the direct-sales industry are asking people to open their doors so they may sell products or services to them within the safety of their homes," Sollows said in a statement. "They to need to behave in both a safe and ethical manner."

Consumers who are contacted by somebody wanting to sell them a product or service should always ask to see their licence, Sollows advised.

All direct sellers in New Brunswick must be licensed and carry that licence with them when they are working, she said.

The annual licence will identify the direct-sales person's name and the company they're representing, have the signature of the commission, as well as an expiration date.

"The licence would give some consumer protections in that we both assess the suitability of the individual and the company at the time of [licensing], but then — as was the case in this instance — there is ongoing assessment of suitability."