“What happened in London is obviously tragic,” said Jonathan Gormick, public information officer for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
“It’s a very rare occurrence…There would have had to have been multiple system failures.”
At least a dozen people died in the London fire, and authorities believe the death toll will grow. Residents of the 24-storey public housing building had warned of “catastrophic” fire risk in the building but say their warnings fell on deaf ears.
More than 30 per cent of Toronto dwellings are in buildings of five or more storeys, according to Statistics Canada, followed by at 16.8 per cent of dwellings in London, Ont., and Vancouver with 16.7 per cent.
What happened in London is statistically unlikely, Gormick said. On top of that, Canada has incredibly strong oversight when it comes to building and maintaining structures.
“We’re fortunate in Canada, and I know specifically on the West Coast, that we have some of the most progressive and aggressive fire code, building code and fire bylaw legislation that is extremely stringent,” said Gormick.
Still, awareness is key. Here’s what you need to know should you find yourself in a high-rise during a fire.
What to do if there is a fire in your building
It might go against your instincts but experts say that if there is a fire in your building, usually you should stay where you are.
“The big question is always, should you stay or should you try to evacuate?” said Lewis Smith, Canada Safety Council spokesperson.
“Make sure that you’re safe and make sure that you’re doing things properly rather than rushing to get out and bowling people over in the stairwell.”
There are a few considerations.
“If the building has working sprinklers and the fire is not in the same area of the building that you’re in, it’s reasonably safe to stay put,” said Smith.
“It’s also generally a good idea to stay in place if there’s smoke or fire outside your exit door, if you have a disability that might make evacuation more difficult than your average person, or if you waited just a bit too long to evacuate and the fire department is in place and attempting to ventilate the fire.”
If you are staying in your unit you can put a wet towel at the bottom of your door, or even duct tape, to create a seal and prevent smoke from coming through the cracks.
Go to an area of your residence that has a solid door between you and the area of the fire, and leave the door unlocked in case you need assistance. Choose an area that preferably has a window and a phone.
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If you don’t believe the authorities are aware of the fire, or you think you might need assistance, call 911. If the building’s fire alarm is not activated, trigger it yourself, if it’s safe to do so.
“If you live in a modern, concrete, sprinkler high-rise, unless yours is the suite with the fire, it’s our advice that you stay in place,” said Gormick. “The buildings are so well-constructed and designed to compartmentalize and limit fire spread to the suite of origin.”
Modern buildings have sprinkler and ventilation systems that are coordinated with the fire alarm system. And when residents stay in their units it allows emergency crews easier access to affected areas.
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The situation changes if you begin to fear for your life.
“If you feel like your life is in danger then it’s time to get out,” Gormick said. “If the fire alarm hasn’t been activated for some reason, get out. Pull the fire alarm if you can, safely, but get out of the buildig, call 911 or get the fire alarm activated.”
If you do have to leave the building, head for the stairs. Modern elevators are designed to immediately move to the ground floor when a fire alarm is activated in order to prevent their use by building occupants, and so that they will be available and waiting for emergency crews.
“The stairwells are designed for fire escape. They’re pressurized by the ventilation system to stop smoke and other products of combustion from getting in, and they’re the safest way out of the building,” said Gormick.
Fire safety is the law
There is legislation in Canada requiring that all multi-unit dwellings are inspected on an annual basis. However, individuals should speak up if they have a safety concern.
“If you think something’s not right — maybe the building’s ill-maintained or renovations have been improperly done — don’t hesitate to call a non-emergency fire service number and they can certainly send out a fire prevention inspector to check the building to make sure that everything is up to code,” said Gormick.
Residents should stay on top of fire safety in their own units.
“Smoke alarms are absolutely crucial to have,” said Smith.
“The earlier you are aware of an issue the earlier you can take action, and that starts with a fully functional smoke alarm with batteries that are replenished twice a year.”
An easy way to keep on top of battery changes is to always do it at the same time every year, such as at the beginning and end of daylight saving time or the beginning of summer and winter.
“Vigilance is always the most important part of safety. The goal is always to mitigate and prevent issues before they happen, rather than assess damage after the fact,” said Smith.