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Lack of smoke alarm delayed detection of fatal fire

April 3, 2013, Toronto – The lack of a working smoke alarm on the main floor of a home – not the local fire department’s 12.5-minute response time – is what ultimately caused a March 29 fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., to turn fatal.

April 3, 2013
By Olivia D'Orazio

April 3, 2013, Toronto – The lack of a working smoke alarm on the main floor of a home – not the local fire department’s 12.5-minute response time – is what ultimately caused a March 29 fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., to turn fatal.

Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek said that the lack of a smoke alarm delayed the detection of the fire and subsequently resulted in the late notification of the fire department. This is what the Office of the Fire Marshal’s (OFM) ongoing investigation will focus on, he said at a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday morning.

The two-storey home had two hardwired smoke alarms in it – one in the basement and one on the top floor near the bedrooms. Both alarms, which were part of an all-in-one security system, were wired through the laundry room on the main floor, where preliminary findings have revealed that the fire began. Wieclawek said the fire would have likely rendered the alarms useless at an early stage.

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Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek addresses reporters at a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday morning. He said that the lack of working a smoke alarm on the main floor of a home in East Gwillimbury, Ont., is what ultimately caused a March 29 fire to turn fatal.

Under Ontario law, homes must have a working smoke alarm on each floor. However, the law doesn’t differentiate between hard-wired alarms and battery-operated alarms, and Wieclawek wouldn’t say if one is better than the other. He also wouldn’t comment on whether an automatic sprinkler system would have changed the outcome of the fire, other than to say that he supports the voluntary installation of sprinklers in residential structures.

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Wieclawek said the issue of detection will remain the focus of the OFM’s investigation. When asked about the response time, he said that, while all relevant factors will be examined, he does not believe that they were a direct factor.

The response time became an issue after East Gwillimbury Fire Chief Ken Beckett told the Toronto Star that the department would have likely had a faster response time if its career firefighters were on duty, though he wouldn’t speculate as to whether or not that would have made a difference in the outcome. On Wednesday, Wieclawek declined to comment on the department’s response time, emphasizing that the investigation would focus on the delayed detection of the fire.

When the volunteer fire department in East Gwillimbury arrived on scene, Wieclawek said that the family was already trapped in the master bedroom, as the central staircase, their only way out of the home, was blocked by fire. Conditions inside the home at just after 5:30 a.m. were so poor that neither the family nor the responding firefighters could have survived, he said.

Four people died in the fire – Kevin Dunsmuir, 55, his wife Jennifer, 51, and their sons Robert, 19, and Cameron, 16 – bring the total number of fire fatalities to 24 in 2013. Last year, the 67 people died in fires, the lowest number in the province’s history.