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Sorting through the clutter

In March of 2010, I was in Kingston, Ont., taking stock photos for the magazine and I spent the day at Station 1 with Capt. Shawn Babcock and his crew.

September 28, 2011
By Laura King


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In March of 2010, I was in Kingston, Ont., taking stock photos for the magazine and I spent the day at Station 1 with Capt. Shawn Babcock and his crew. Shortly after I arrived at about 9 a.m., the crew was called out to a fire in an apartment building. There were no injuries, but the fire happened in a unit that was crammed full of newspapers and other items that made it tough for firefighters to do their jobs.

Fast forward to Edmonton in late June. I had attended the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association conference and had arranged to stay for an extra day and ride along with the crew at Station 1 on 96th Street in the city’s downtown. While I was out with Capt. Gerrit Meulenkamp and his crew on a call to a community centre for a needle-box check, there was a fire call and the crew was sent to a highrise building with smoke showing from the 12th floor. 

Once again, firefighters were challenged by piles of stuff through which narrow aisles had been carved. I remember firefighter Todd Molineaux standing outside in the heat of a beautiful Alberta afternoon, drenched in sweat and downing bottles of water, hands held in front of him about 12 inches apart to depict the skinny paths through which firefighters had to manoeuvre to get to the smouldering mattress in the unit’s bedroom.

The state of the apartment units in Kingston and Edmonton angered and frustrated the firefighters, but at that time – less than two years ago – many municipalities didn’t have the tools or trained personnel to deal with hoarding, and hadn’t yet brought together agencies or established task forces to tackle the issue. (And reality-TV programs about hoarding had only recently started airing.)

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In September 2010, Toronto Fire Services responded to the now infamous Wellesley Street highrise fire that resulted in two mayday calls (both firefighters were rescued, one by sheer luck) and – rather quickly by government standards – changed the way Canadian municipalities are handling hoarding.

TFS Chief William Stewart’s PowerPoint presentation on the Wellesley Street fire – which I’ve seen three times, with updated information and photos provided at each viewing (Stewart was scheduled to present the latest version at the CAFC conference in Calgary in September) – is an eye-opening, breathtaking, awe-inducing, hour-long lesson on the terrifying consequences of hoarding.

Originally, Chief Stewart chose his descriptives about Wellesley Street carefully, talking about the fuel load and combustible materials in unit 2424.

By the time I saw the presentation the third time, at an Institution of Fire Engineers (Canada branch) in Toronto in May – in conjunction with presentations by public health nurses Alanna Barr and Ulla Wise about the health implications of hoarding, and Nancy Macdonald-Duncan with the Office of the Fire Marshal on the legal ramifications – Stewart’s language had become more mainstream and he was able to show numerous photos of the unit of origin and other apartments that contained similarly dangerous levels of hoarding.

Stewart hadn’t been coy in the early presentation, he was just careful not to disparage residents of 200 Wellesley St. But as the investigation continued, more municipal agencies got involved, media coverage of the incident grew, and it became clear that hoarding was a problem for 200 Wellesley St., for Toronto’s public housing agency, and for TFS. TFS hopes to implement a public-education campaign on hoarding that will reach people in 550,000 highrise units.

As Wise, the public health nurse, said in an e-mail, it’s “a proactive approach by increasing awareness of the problem through education of staff, stakeholders, and the public, and formulating a detailed response plan to hoarding complaints and establishing an information tracking database.”

For more on hoarding, see our cover story


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