Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Laura King   

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April 19, 2016, Toronto – There is consensus among those who have testified at the inquest into seven fire fatalities – three in Whitby, four in East Gwillimbury – that responders did everything by the book but couldn't save the three teenagers and the four members of Dunsmuir family who perished in the separate blazes in 2012 and 2013.

Maybe the book needs to be rewritten.

Public education – that first line of defence that successive Ontario fire marshals have preached – came up short; other than calling 911, neither the teens nor the Dunsmuirs were adequately armed with the necessary know how to give themselves a chance of survival, and in the latter incident – a fire that started in the main-floor laundry room – there was no smoke alarm.

A landlord shirked his duties – and the second line of defence collapsed in the Whitby case when an inspector failed to thoroughly ensure necessary fire-protection measures were in place.

Response times were discussed at various points in the three weeks since the inquest started on March 29 – eight minutes for Whitby Fire to arrive on scene despite the hall being 260 metres down the street, and 12 minutes for East Gwillimbury's volunteer firefighters to reach 72 Howard Ave. in the community of Sharon, both well within the norm.

Career versus volunteer? Not an issue, despite some gentle pokes by Mark Train, a Mississauga firefighter who represents the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (but is not a lawyer), at the East Gwillimbury firefighters who testified last week – mainly about fire-ground staffing and the fact that the incident commander also drove the first-in engine.

Train tried in vain on Monday to poke deeper, this time at East Gwillimbury Chief Phil Dawson on the stand, but lawyer John Saunders objected to questions about budgets and levels of service as irrelevant to the inquest, and coroner Dr. David Evans agreed.

Training? More of it, and standardized, for 911 call takers and fire dispatchers, witnesses told coroner's counsel Frank Giordano; and maybe cross training for police who might be the first to arrive at a working fire – particularly about fire behaviour and understanding what happens when doors to a burning structure are breached. Indeed, East Gwillimbury and York Regional Police are already doing just that.

Whitby Chief David Speed, in his April 7 statement to the five-member jury – which will make non-binding recommendations when the inquest wraps up, likely next week – threw political caution to the wind, calling for mandatory sprinklers in all new residential construction.

East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Phil Dawson proposed a more conservative approach on Monday – focusing on education and early detection, asking that the jury consider recommending fire inspections whenever ownership of a home or tenants change, possibly through municipal bylaws.

"Sprinklers are a good idea but they're reactive," Dawson said. Indeed, he added, all firefighters – even those in suppression – should be involved in the first two lines of defence.

Both fire chiefs urged the jury to consider broader public education, to make recommendations that focus on reaching particular demographics and with strong messaging.

Earlier Monday, the Dunsmuir housekeeper of 12 years, Valerie Schmidt, testified that there was no smoke alarm on the main floor of the home and only one on the second storey, in the hallway outside the bedrooms. (There was an additional alarm in the basement but Schmidt wasn't aware.)

The fire on March 29, 2013, started in the laundry room, in a plugged vent to the outside, which, during renovations, had been reconfigured to go through the floor and along the basement ceiling, to the outside.

The purpose of questions by coroner's counsel about an oily substance in the laundry room area – linseed oil, perhaps – which Schmidt said she was unaware of, were not explained, the details likely to come later this week from representatives of the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management who investigated the incident.

Friday, the jury heard from Dunsmuir neighbour John Hems, who said he heard screaming from the home but no smoke alarms.

"The whole street," Hems said, "replaced their smoke alarms right after the fire."

Public education of the most tragic kind.

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