By Laura King
May 2, 2016, Toronto - Thirty-three recommendations were made Friday afternoon by the five-person coroner's jury who heard over four weeks the complex and sometimes gut-wrenching details of seven fire fatalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013.
Among the recommendations are consultation about mandatory sprinklers in new construction; more – and better – public education and, as expected, targeted to specific groups; and consideration by municipalities and fire departments of re-allocating money to prevention and inspections, from suppression.
Training, too, is at the crux of the lengthy list of recommendations, given the lack of mandatory course requirements for fire dispatchers in Ontario, a fact that was widely reported by rather gobsmacked reporters covering the inquest, to a rather naive public.
Indeed, the jury recommends that the province institute mandatory certification for inspectors, public educators and communicators – finger pointed directly at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. It is rather flummoxing that the people, as the jury said, "whose primary job function it is to perform fire inspections, public education and/or communication" in Ontario require no standardized, mandatory certification. That said, of course, neither do firefighters.
The jury also calls for collaboration between police and fire on training for fire responses, and municipal websites and literature to explain levels of service, response times, and coverage – full-time, part-time or volunteer.
What became overwhelmingly clear to the jury during the inquest into separate fires in Whitby and East Gwillimbury in which three teens and four members of one family perished, was the lack of public understanding of the consequences of lightweight construction, the complexity of a fire-department response from the 911 call to water on the fire, and the need to be out of a burning structure before the trucks arrive.
While witnesses testified that they understood their municipalities' levels of service, it became clear during the inquest that few people outside the fire service recognize the rescues on Chicago Fire are fiction, and that smoke kills people who fail to properly protect themselves with alarms and a well-practiced escape plan.
Re-allocating money to public education from suppression, as the jury recommends municipalities and fire departments consider doing, is about as likely to happen as the end of 24-hour shifts.
I know this because, as I sit in the foyer outside the OAFC trade show looking at billions of dollars worth of fire equipment – trucks, hoses, thermal imagers, PPE with integrated TICs – it occurs to me (actually, it was pointed out by an observant deputy chief) that of the hundreds of booths at the show, few, if any, are dedicated to prevention and public education; it's about the business of suppression.
But here's what no one's saying out loud: Had Benjamin Twiddy, 19, Marilee Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18, thrown the burning towel that started the fire in the second-storey Whitby apartment into the sink rather than down the stairway, or sheltered in a room with a closed door, and had the Dunsmuir family had a working, main-floor smoke alarm, the outcome may have been different.
People are responsible for their own well-being and survival. Danielle Migueis, the 911 call-taker who answered Robert Dunsmuir's cell phone call from his parents burning East Gwillimbury home said although she wasn't required to do so, she used common sense, called back after the line was disconnected, and tried to help the family to find a way out of the house.
Sadly, common sense can't be legislated.