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Editor’s blog


December 19, 2013
By Laura King


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Dec. 19, 2013, Toronto – I happened to be in Ottawa on the weekend when two university students were killed in a house fire. Those two fatalities and three more in Loyalist Township on the weekend brought the number of fire fatalities in Ontario this year to 72, three more than in the same period last year (not including fire fatalities on First Nations).

Dec. 19, 2013, Toronto – I happened to be in Ottawa on the weekend when two university students were killed in a house fire. Those two fatalities and three more in Loyalist Township on the weekend brought the number of fire fatalities in Ontario this year to 72, eight more than in the same period last year (not including fire fatalities on First Nations).

I can’t find anything in the Ottawa stories about smoke alarms – whether there were any, and, if there were, whether they were working. It was cold, there was a ton of snow, and Ottawa Fire’s media guru, Marc Messier, sent out several press releases and tweets – as he always does – keeping reporters accurately informed about the fire, the response and, ultimately, the fatalities. Presumably, information on smoke alarms will be available once the investigation concludes.

We wanted to do a web story about the numbers of fatalities in Ontario to date, the push by the Office of the Fire Marshal toward the first two lines of defence – fire prevention/public education and standards/code enforcement – and explain what the OFM is doing to reach vulnerable groups such as university students, but no one at the OFM would talk to us despite providing a list of questions as requested and extending the deadline for the story.

According to the OFM website, there were 70 fire fatalities in 2012 (not including First Nations) – so as of today, there have been two more fatalities in 2013 than in all of last year, with a few weeks of cold weather and festivities yet to come.

In the years between 2003 and 2011, there was a high of 110 deaths (2003) and a low of 79 (2010). So, numbers in 2012 and, presumably, 2013, are better than the average over the last decade.

Still, we wanted to get an OFM perspective on the numbers and the questions, sent to Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek’s communications person Carol Gravelle by Fire Fighting in Canada assistant editor Olivia D’Orazio, are valid. Last week, I shared a video on Facebook that had been posted by Toronto Fire Services featuring Wieclawek, members of the Fire Marshal’s Public Fire Safety Council, and a choir of elementary-school students singing the 12 Days of Holiday Safety. The video is fantastic – it’s entertaining, the messages are great, the kids are adorable and the singing fire chiefs are, well, something else – but I wondered as I posted it who is seeing it besides fire-service members; how are the safety messages getting to those who need to hear them most?

I’d still like to know. Others would too. I just checked my notes from the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs mid-term meeting in November to confirm that it was Windsor Fire Chief Bruce Montone who asked Wieclawek the about the status of a fire-service group that was to promote fire safety and the first two lines of defence.

“We had recognized that the smoke alarm program had flat lined,” Wieclawek said, “that it was getting stale.”

“Why,” he asked, “would we go out and use the same taglines?

“Is there some way that we have to reenergize, and communicate in a different way?”

Presumably, yes. That’s what we wanted to know.

I suspect most of you have seen the dramatic rescue of crane operator Adam Jastrzebski by military search and rescue techs in Kingston, Ont., on Tuesday. I kept thinking as I watched the incident develop about Kingston Fire Chief Rheaume Chaput and the numbers of decisions he would have had to make during the fire in an under-construction, four-storey wood-frame student apartment building that threatened nearby structures including a gas station and an elementary school.

The building was large and was, of course, being built to code. What if it had been bigger – six storeys instead of four? Would Jastrzebski have survived?

The bill that would allow Ontario developers to build wood-frame structures higher than four storeys is called the Forestry Industry Revitalization Act. That pretty much says it all.

And after Tuesday’s blaze and rescue, it will be interesting to see who says what about this smouldering issue.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs is, perhaps wisely, staying out of the public debate but it does have smart people working to ensure that proposed changes to the building code consider fire safety.

The concrete lobby last week launched a national awareness campaign about the dangers of wood-frame construction, and in British Columbia, where six-storey wood-frame construction has been allowed since 2009, took out full-page ads in some newspapers attacking wood as an unsustainable building material. Forestry groups struck back with well-rounded arguments that you can read here.

To me, the most interesting part of this story is the fact that people in Kingston had been referring to the partially constructed building near Queen’s University as a tinderbox.

Although the structure would have contained fire separators, sprinklers, and other safety measures when completed, it seems to me that the risks during construction – and in the response to a fire – may be reason enough to take a hard look at the proposal to allow larger wood-frame buildings.

Tuesday’s fire forced evacuations, spread to nearby homes, cars, a hotel, and billboards, and required military intervention for rescue; the crane operator was severely burned, was scared out of his mind and has said he will not return to work.

Mayor Mark Gerretsen said just the sight of the wood-frame building worried him.

“Every time I drove past this in last couple months and saw all the wood there, I started thinking ‘Wow, if that ever caught on fire, it would be quite the scene,’” he told CBC News. “Unfortunately that played out and became reality.”

Chaput pulled no punches: “Unfortunately, that type of construction is a lot harder to deal with when there’s a fire,” he said. “Wood burns and ideally there’s better types of construction out there.”

I was surprised again, as I have been many times during the Elliot Lake inquiry into the collapse of the Algo Centre mall and the emergency response to it, when I read that commissioner Paul Belanger is delaying his recommendations until October.

Certainly the inquiry went over its anticipated length and there was considerably more evidence presented than was expected. But having sat through portions of the inquiry and listened to much of the testimony online, I’m flummoxed about why the commissioner needs another 11 months (longer than the inquiry itself) to craft his report, particularly given that all parties involved in the inquiry have neatly summarized their arguments and drafted potential recommendations.

We know the key issues – I won’t rehash them (you can read previous blogs here). We also know that the inquiry was called by former premier Dalton McGuinty, that Kathleen Wynne may want to distance herself from it given the length, magnitude and cost of the proceedings, that there may be a provincial election in the spring, and that anything – such as recommendations for change in provincial emergency management – that could negatively impact the ruling Liberals might be pushed off until after an election.

Just sayin’.


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