Laura KingFeatures Blogs Editor’s blog
April 8, 2016, Toronto – It was apparent yesterday afternoon at the inquest into three fire fatalities in Whitby in 2012 that to be a chief in this province, it's necessary to have skin as thick as the tires on an aerial truck.
Whitby Fire Chief David Speed suppressed innuendo, accusations and inaccuracies lobbed by lawyers for the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management and the families of the three deceased teens – Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18 – during a full day of testimony in a coroner's court on Thursday.
Politics clearly at play, the lawyer for the OFMEM, Claudia Brabazon, tried to trip up Chief Speed, to discredit his evidence – although it's not quite clear why.
The details and nuances are complex. Chief Speed was, in part, testifying from notes made by a Whitby fire inspector. The inspector told Speed – before he became chief, back when he headed the fire-prevention division – but did not write down the fact that the owner of the apartment in which the teens died had earlier complied with a fire-code inspection order, and the required work had been completed.
After the fire on April 29, 2012, it became clear that fireproof drywall had never been installed in the unit's stairwell as specified in the order, and the combustible wood panelling ignited along with carpet and wallpaper, blocking the teens' only way out. The three friends were found huddled under a living-room window, trying to shield themselves from the blaze that started when a towel caught fire and was tossed into the stairwell.
Given that the inspector, Wayne Bray who, strangely, has not been called as a witness, had made thorough notes about every other aspect of the case but none detailing his conversation with the landlord about the drywall, perhaps Mr. Bray and the landlord had not, in fact, discussed that issue, the lawyer said.
"Isn't it possible," Brabazon asked, "that the conversation never took place?"
"No," Chief Speed replied, without hesitation. "Mr. Bray told me that it took place and I believe him."
Still, it's curious that the chief, who kept his composure even after several hours on the stand and provided detailed evidence, testified from another's notes, hence, perhaps, the hard line by the lawyers. When asked, other parties involved with the inquest and some of their lawyers couldn't explain Mr. Bray's absence or Chief Speed's use of the inspector's notes.
Later, the OFM lawyer asked if the inspector should have taken the landlord's word given his blatant disregard for fire-code compliance before he was earlier fined for another violation.
"In the beginning [the landlord] was difficult but after he was charged he started to comply," Speed said. "I have a lot of trust in the inspectors . . . "
As one courtroom spectator put it, no good deed goes unpunished – in this case, the inspector having given the landlord the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, it was noted, it's crucial to go by the book regardless of political pressure to relax the rules for tax-paying property owners – do what's right, not what's popular, and, as is well known from the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry and other proceedings in Ontario, take precise, detailed notes, always.
The lawyer for the Town of Whitby clarified with Chief Speed that the municipality treats everyone equally – that, for example, landlords with a single conviction are not red flagged, targeted or profiled, as the OFM lawyer had suggested might have been appropriate in this case given some of the conditions in the apartment.
Those conditions, Chief Speed said – low ceilings, no sprinklers, extinguishers or fire escape (none of which is required) – are normal and are found in hundreds of similar apartments across the province.
Earlier, Chief Speed had provided jurors with his recommendations to consider: mandatory training for fire inspectors – who in Ontario are considered assistants to the fire marshal but for whom there is no required standardized provincial training; better public education; and – of course – sprinklers.
"In this case," Speed said, "and in about 80 other fires every year in Ontario, the three lines of defence did not work."
Sprinklers, Speed said, would likely have saved the lives of the teens, whose screams, and subsequent silence, were heard on the 911 tape played in the courtroom last week.
"Firefighters followed all practices and policies," Speed said. "Yet I struggle to find a recommendation to improve this, except this one; I urge the jury to recommend the installation of sprinklers in all new residential construction."
Given that earlier witnesses testified to a "textbook" response that took more than four minutes even though the fire hall was fewer than 300 metres down the street, and, as Speed told the inquest, Whitby has 104 suppression firefighters but just six fire-prevention officers, the recommendation is reasonable.
Thick skin indeed.
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