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Fire service wary of changes to Ontario building code

Dec. 16, 2013, Toronto – The fire service in Ontario is taking a cautious approach to the proposed changes to the building code, which would see the implementation of wood-framed buildings up to six storeys.

December 16, 2013
By Olivia D'Orazio

Dec. 16, 2013, Toronto – The fire service in Ontario is taking a cautious approach to the proposed changes to the building code, which would see the implementation of wood-framed buildings up to six storeys.

Carl Pearson, a captain with the Thorold Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario and a past president of the FFAO, said changes to the building code that would allow wood-framed buildings could put residents at risk.

“I’m not in favour of one type of construction over another,” Pearson says. “My main concern is public safety and firefighter safety.

“If we know that [wood-framed buildings] are 100 per cent safe, then let’s [build them]. But it has to be a safe building.”

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Frank Lamie, a retired deputy chief from Toronto who is currently working with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs to bring a fire perspective to the building code, reflects Pearson’s emphasis on safety.

“Our objective is occupant safety and firefighter safety,” Lamie says. “We understand that things in the [building] industry evolve, but we just want to make sure that [construction trends] are deployed properly and done safely so that the end result is still the safety of the occupant and the firefighter.”

The current building code in Ontario allows for wood-frame buildings up to four storeys for certain residential, office and mercantile occupancies. These buildings must meet a number of fire-safety criteria, including one-hour fire separations, fire sprinklers, and non-combustible cladding for exterior walls. Should the proposed changes be approved, permitting up to six stories of wood-framed structure, the building would need to meet the previous criteria, as well as new requirements, such as a maximum height of 18 metres, being fully sprinklered and a variety of qualifications regarding structural load factors.

In British Columbia, wood-framed buildings up to six stories are already allowed. A study by the University of the Fraser Valley, titled Sprinkler Systems and Fire Outcomes in Multi-Level Residential Buildings, found no evidence to support concerns that wood-framed buildings pose greater fire risks, mainly because the amended building code took steps to reduce any risks, such as requiring buildings to be fully sprinklered.

In the November 2012 issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, Peter Sells examined the proposal for a 10-storey wooden building in Prince George, B.C. Sells wrote that the proposed building “would have more in common structurally with old-style construction, which featured robust masonry, load-bearing walls, and full dimensional lumber floor and roof members.”

All of these features and requirements are great in theory, but Pearson says there still isn’t enough scientific testing to back up the proposal.

“We’re speculating that it’ll be fine, but we have to see how they’ll perform. We have to do some destructive testing to ensure that they’re safe.”