WALL OF FLAMES

Wood-frame fire and dramatic rescue spark calls for safety improvements
February 10, 2014
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Freezing temperatures. High winds. Blowing snow. An under-construction, four-storey, wood-frame building with one stairway exit. And 68-year-old Adam Jastrezbski perched precariously on the end of a crane boom 100 metres in the air, with smoke billowing, flames licking, and no way down.

A Dec. 17 fire  
A Dec. 17 fire in a massive, under-construction wood-frame building in Kingston, Ont., burned adjacent buildings, trapped a crane operator 150 metres in the air, and raised questions about fire safety on construction sites. Photos courtesy Kingston Fire & Rescue

 
“It was,” said Kingston Fire-Rescue Chief Rheaume Chaput, with no apologies for the cliché, “a perfect storm.”

The 144-unit student apartment complex in Kingston, Ont., was massive – 4,559 square metres (49,072 square feet). The mayor called the wood-framed building a tinderbox, even though, once completed, it would meet building and fire-code specifications.

Once completed.

The problem, said Chaput, is that the structure at the corner of Princess and Victoria streets – and the workers erecting it – were more vulnerable to fire while it was being built.

“It was such a large footprint, and such a large construction site of wood, and it was already framed to four storeys,” he said.

Two workers on the top floor of the building had to be rescued by firefighters after the call came in at 2:15 p.m. on Dec. 17.

“There’s one set of stairs for these construction workers, up and down, and what is the travel distance in that building?” Chaput said. “We wouldn’t allow that in a finished building so why are we allowing that in a building under construction? That’s why I think there needs to be a really close look at this event and lessons learned from it.”

While there are proposals to amend both the national and Ontario building codes to allow six-storey wood-frame construction (which is already permitted in British Columbia), the focus has been on measures such as sprinklers and pressurized stairwells to protect residents and firefighters once the buildings are complete. That, said Chaput, isn’t enough.

* * *

“The first-arriving crew could see flames and smoke above the cab of the truck when they were looking out the window,” Chaput said. “So there were massive flames and smoke on the upper floors.”

The high in Kingston on Dec. 17 was -12.9 C. There were four centimetres of snow on the ground and flurries in the air. The wind was blowing at 20 kilometres an hour from the northeast; this caused heat to radiate across Princess Street and ignite the Howard Johnson hotel and the duplex beside it, along with the Legion Villa seniors home, from which Kingston Fire & Rescue (KFR) personnel directed the evacuation of some of the 56 residents (many weren’t home at the time). Overall, the fire affected an area of 12,499 square metres (134,538 square feet).

“Siding was melted, windows were broken – because of the heat,” Chaput said.

The two workers on the top floor – the basement was 50 per cent above grade so, technically, the building is higher than four storeys – were rescued using a construction-site scissor lift because it could reach the workers more quickly than the fire department’s ladder truck, said Deputy Chief Don Corbett.

“And of course,” said Chaput, “we had the crane operator. He was in a position so that he couldn’t get down because he knew by about halfway down he would be in the flames and smoke.”

KFR knew when the calls came in that there was a man trapped on the crane. The communications centre dispatched Kingston’s five urban stations.

“As soon as the first truck arrived and gave the size-up we knew more resources were required, so we dispatched our other stations, the volunteer stations too,” Chaput said.

In all, 10 stations and 113 Kingston firefighters were on scene with 27 apparatuses; 11 Kingston fire personnel helped in communications; 11 mutual-aid departments were called and brought 160 firefighters and 19 trucks. Fifty Kingston firefighters provided coverage to the rest of the city. There were 22 other 911 calls during the fire fight – normal call volume is 12 to 14 for that time of day but flames and ash were falling on nearby buildings. The Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated.

Assistant Deputy Chief Shawn Babcock was the incident commander.

“He set up a command post at the intersection of Victoria and Princess streets and commanded the scene from there,” Chaput said.

Remarkably, the crane operator had his cell phone with him as he inched his way to the end of the boom, freezing on one side from the bitter cold and wind, burning on the other side from the intense heat.

“He did a couple of things,” Chaput said. “He pointed the crane away from the fire and then walked out, away from the fire, because the crane itself was being overcome with flames. He went out to the end of the crane, had no harness. Sixty-eight years old and he had already received burns. He got out to the end and he had his cell phone and made calls to 911.”

Jastrezbski – who was still in hospital in London, Ont., in late January with severe burns – communicated with police. Police communicated with fire and were able to tell Jastrezbski that help was on the way.

Both Chaput and Corbett credit Babcock’s quick thinking for saving Jastrezbski’s life – had the call to nearby CFB Trenton for a Griffon helicopter been made any later, the outcome may have been different.

“We knew that [Babcock] knew the ladder truck wouldn’t reach,” Chaput said, “and that the only way we were going to get him was by helicopter.”

Corbett agreed.

fire wall
 
   
“He couldn’t move and we couldn’t get to him,” he said of Jastrezbski. “We mentioned that Babcock made that call to get the helicopter in; that was a fantastic call on his part – and knowing that the EOC was working on an alternate solution to get another crane so we could get up to the guy if necessary – obviously our main concern was the crane operator; the fire was secondary.”

With TV cameras poised to capture the rescue and a seriously injured Jastrezbski clinging to the boom, Chaput worried whether the crane’s infrastructure could withstand the heat.

“One of the concerns I had as chief as I was standing on Victoria Street watching this unfold was the integrity of the crane and whether it was going to stay up long enough to execute a rescue,” Chaput said. “Also, the byproduct of the rotor wash from the helicopter was a concern but, fortunately, Trenton did a great job.”

There were options being considered but neither was ideal: to bring in and set up another crane, from which rescuers could access Jastrezbski; or to authorize KFR’s technical rescue team to try to reach him – once the fire was out.

“That was one we didn’t want to entertain,” Chaput said.

Chaput said temperatures while Jastrezbski was on the crane boom reached 1,000 C and that steel begins to compromise at about 800 C.

Chaput and Babcock discussed strategies for dealing with the heat around the crane.

“One of the things we did not want was water directly on the crane itself because we were afraid that the water on the steel would impact it and cause it to collapse,” Chaput said.

“What we did do, though, was put water around the outside of it to cool down the area and allow the chopper to come in and not have as much heat, because we were worried that the thermal heat would cause problems with the chopper as well. That was about the only thing we had to do in regard to that. It was pretty fast.”

After about 45 minutes from the initial 911 call, Jastrezbski was harnessed to a military rescuer and whisked to hospital.

“They didn’t waste much time,” Corbett said of the CFB Trenton team.

Once Jastrezbski was rescued, the operation turned purely defensive.

“When I was watching that, the concern I had was that the crane would collapse,” Chaput said. “So once he was gone, it was like a weight was lifted off us because, not to downplay it, but now it’s a basic fire, there are no life safety issues, it’s straight defensive and that’s what we did.”

The fire, Chaput said, generated a tremendous amount of heat very quickly and burned fast.

“It was literally a wall of flames,” he said.  “And it was that wall of flames that generated so much heat that we had exposure fires almost instantly.”

Indeed, KFR used more than 8.67 million gallons of water on the fire; the volume of water caused myriad problems.

“We worked with Utilities Kingston to increase the pressure where we were and reduce the pressure in other areas so we had more volume,” Chaput said. “And we also set up a water shuttle on top of that to supplement the water supply.”

Streets were flooded – water was a foot deep in spots; ice built up on anything that stood still. In addition, hydro vaults under Princess Street were overcome with water and couldn’t drain fast enough, so they arced and failed, causing power outages.

The heat was so intense that hydro lines on Victoria Street were damaged and a fibre-optic line that was part of the 911 system was burned, so the city lost part of its 911 capability (there was a redundancy in place for a portion of the affected cable).

Firefighters used 8.67 million gallons of water  
Firefighters used 8.67 million gallons of water to put out the fire at a wood-frame construction site. The volume of water caused problems including street flooding and damaged hydro vaults.

 
Crews remained on scene for two days working the hot spots. The crane was dismantled on Dec. 20 and 21 by JM Francoeur Cranes of Montreal, under the supervision of the Ministry of Labour (MOL). An evacuation zone had been established around the crane so residents were kept away from their homes for days.

“And, of course, it’s a difficult time because it’s at Christmas and they’re sitting there looking at their homes and they know the front window’s broken and the power’s off and their Christmas presents are there and they want in,” Chaput said.

“It’s a challenge dealing with the displaced folks and the social aspects, so we were very sensitive to their needs and tried to accommodate them as much as we could.”

As for the MOL, Chaput said KFR kept inspectors outside the perimeter until it was safe for them to enter. He said he was aware that an MOL presence was necessary given the crane operator’s ordeal.

“We used them as a catalyst to control how the crane came down,” Chaput said. “So when it came to taking down the crane – I’m no expert in crane disassembly – so we wanted to make sure it was co-ordinated through the Ministry of Labour. The crane owner had to work with the ministry to get a plan that was approved by the MOL to do the work. That’s how we used the MOL.”

Although the cause of the fire was still being investigated at press time, and KFR was still reviewing best practices, Chaput noted two things the department managed particularly well during the lengthy incident: use of the Blue Card command system; and controlling of the message through social media.

“We learned that our incident management system is sound,” Chaput said.

KFR had implemented mandatory training for all of its officers last year and Chaput said several had completed the program before the Dec. 17 fire.

“You could tell in the operation,” Chaput said. “It was very effective; there was a very good size-up, a very systematic approach, very calm. Very professional. And that calmness vibrates across everything so when you can remain calm as an incident commander then the rank and file feel that calmness.

“I’ve never been more proud of the firefighters and staff than I was on that day when they rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done.”

Reporters, meanwhile, converged on the scene when word of the trapped crane operator got out.

“One of the things we learned quickly was to keep information flowing and monitor Twitter to correct information that was inaccurate, keep the media informed, and provide updates.”

KFR was fortunate to have been able to assign four people to deal with reporters and monitor media coverage.

“We had a really strong focus on that and it really paid off,” Chaput said. “The mayor worked closely with Fire, and we worked closely with social media, Twitter; our website was updated regularly, we monitored the news and social media sites. It made a big difference.”

Mutual aid was another effective tool. Departments responded from Stone Mills, Gananoque, Napanee, South Frontenac, Central Frontenac, Rideau Lakes, Front of Yonge, Elizabethtown-Kitley and Loyalist – along with Belleville (80 kilometres west) and Brockville (85 kilometres east). 

“Kingston is a fairly large department,” Chaput said. “We have 10 stations. And the fact that we drew from Belleville and as far away as Brockville and everything in between just shows the importance of maintaining relationships in your mutual aid and recognizing that no matter how many resources you may have, there may be a time in your career when you need to draw on mutual aid.” 

Given the magnitude of the fire, Chaput wonders about the logic behind the push for six-storey wood-frame construction, at least until there are better fire-prevention and protection regulations for the construction phase. With a six-storey building, he said, the fire would have been more intense.

“More flames, more heat, more risk,” he said.

“I certainly have concerns about the building when it’s a large building site such as it was in Kingston. There need to be mechanisms in place during the construction to ensure fire-related issues are addressed, so that there’s an enhanced fire-safety component, whether that means a built-up hose-cabinet system or something to that effect, there needs to be something in place to address that.”

Retired Toronto deputy chief Frank Lamie represents the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs on a committee reviewing the proposal to amend the provincial building code to allow six-storey combustible construction. Laime said in an interview in January that he would raise the issue of fire safety during construction at the next committee meeting, but acknowledged that it’s a complicated issue that requires the involvement of the Ministry of Labour and other groups.

Regardless, Chaput said, there needs to be a review of best practices for wood-frame construction, no matter how many storeys. And escape plans for crane operators.

“We were fortunate,” he said. “But there are good lessons to be learned here. There’s an opportunity to fix some gaps by learning from this and not letting it happen again – because there may not be a helicopter handy the next time.”

LESSONS LEARNED
Communication
During the incident, the administrative lines in the communication centre rang constantly. KFR has since co-ordinated a process under which the administrative lines will move out of the communications centre so dispatchers will not be interrupted.

Hose lines
Delivery and flow of water should be more systematic so that access can be maintained to certain areas without lines in the way.

Crowd control
Quicker crowd control with police involvement will help ensure that civilians are kept out of the area so fire personnel can manoeuvre and work more safely.

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