Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Prevention
The residential fire safety problem

The recent house fire in West Lincoln, Ont., that resulted in the deaths of a mother and her seven children is an unfortunate example of the failure of our fire prevention programs in Canada. We have made great strides in public education and the installation of smoke alarms, but it has not been enough. We continue to have losses of life due to fire.

December 14, 2007
By CYRIL W. HARE

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The recent house fire in West Lincoln, Ont., that resulted in the deaths of a mother and her seven children is an unfortunate example of the failure of our fire prevention programs in Canada. We have made great strides in public education and the installation of smoke alarms, but it has not been enough. We continue to have losses of life due to fire.

The majority of these fatal fires are residential. Over the last 25 years we have been able to reduce these numbers with the widespread use of smoke alarms, however, we have not been able to eliminate these fire deaths. Why?

The answer to a large extent is the rapid speed at which a fire spreads and the immediate actions of building occupants. Studies have shown that the time between the appearance of visible flame to the time of complete involvement of a room (flashover) is as little as three minutes. Once flashover has occurred, there is no possibility of survival in the room and all other rooms in the house will quickly become untenable. If the fire occurs on the first floor of a two-storey house, the second floor smoke alarm will activate in a timeframe of between two- to 2-1/2 minutes. That means that the occupants have 30 to 60 seconds to escape from the house.

In addition the young and the elderly represent a greater portion of the fatal fires than their numbers in the population. This is due to the fact that they may not be cognizant of the dangers and unable to remove themselves from the house. If there is not a sufficient number of adults present, someone will always be left behind.

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Many people believe that the fire department will save them. Unfortunately this is a myth. If a fire station was located directly across the street from a house, they could not respond fast enough to prevent flashover in the room of origin and rescue all of the occupants. If the fire department was called at the time of flaming ignition, it would take close to three minutes for the dispatcher to take the call and notify the station and for the crew to get in the fire truck and respond to the fire. Once on the scene it would take at least three minutes for the firefighters to connect to a fire hydrant and advance a hoseline into the house. If you are still inside the house, it is too late.

So what can we do? Fire prevention and public education has reduced the number of incidents but they have not eliminated fires. When a fire occurs you must be able to escape quickly. If you are young or elderly, you may be too slow or physically unable to escape. The ultimate answer is residential sprinkler protection. Residential sprinkler protection has been around for approximately 25 years. In those jurisdictions where residential sprinkler protection has been made mandatory the number of fire deaths has been reduced far below the levels of the areas where only smoke alarms are required. Vancouver, B.C., has had a residential sprinkler regulation for over 10 years and has seen marked improvements in the reduction of life loss due to fire. There are now over 280 jurisdictions in North America where residential sprinkler protection is mandatory.

New innovations in the design for residential sprinkler protection such as networked sprinkler systems (combined domestic piping and sprinkler piping) have reduced the cost of installation and increased system reliability. Installing sprinkler protection throughout the house is not as expensive as installing a granite counter top in the kitchen. This protection is affordable. Unfortunately the public is not aware of its benefits.

On Nov. 25, 2004, Bill 141 received second reading in the Ontario Legislature. This bill proposes to amend the Building Code Act to make residential sprinkler protection mandatory in all new homes in Ontario. This is the next step in the fight to eliminate deaths due to fire. Everyone in the fire protection industry should contact their MPP and voice their support for this bill. If residential sprinklers had been in the West Lincoln house, those lives would not have been lost and a family devastated. If we do not take action, it is only a matter of time until we read the next deadly headline. 

Cyril Hare is a director of the Ontario Industrial Fire Protection Association and a former fire chief of Mississauga (Ont.) Fire & Emergency Services.


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