In light of a West End fire that claimed the life of a five-year-old child last week, a longtime community safety activist wants the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) to adopt a more robust fire prevention program.
Sel Burrows says the city needs a better system that alerts tenants of hazards and helps them understand their rights to heating and safe wiring.
Education is key to stopping preventable accidents, Burrows told Global News on Monday, but the information needs to be delivered in ways and through channels that work for the community.
“The biggest gap is that it’s really hard to communicate with poorer people, and it’s the low-rent houses that are burning,” said Burrows, who coordinates the Point Powerline, an inner-city community development and crime prevention program.
The headline of Point Powerline’s latest bulletin to people living in the Point Douglas neighbourhood reads, “Too many fires.”
The lime green flyer that’s issued once every two months — one residents know to look for — outlines what they can do to prevent fires and who to call to manage the risks, Burrows said. It’s printed in 14-point font and written in Grade 4 English to accommodate lower literacy levels.
The risk of fire escalates during wintertime because of heating, Burrows says.
As of Jan. 26, WFPS crews had responded to 108 fire calls, fewer than last January’s total of 144, a WFPS spokesperson told Global News Monday.
Burrows warns flames can erupt as a result of unsafe heaters or wiring and other things like unattended cooking.
“If the furnace goes off in Winnipeg when it’s 25 below, what do you do? You turn the stove on. You plug in these heaters, and you’ve got a threat of a fire,” Burrows said.
Lower-income people often turn to old or second-hand heaters without safety features, like those that don’t turn off automatically when they tip over, he said.
But furnaces should always be working properly, Burrows says, and tenants should have the know-how in case they find themselves in that situation.
“The first call goes to the landlord. If the landlord’s not there right away, most tenants have to have (Manitoba) Hydro’s phone number and then call, and the landlords get billed for the parts because the call is free,” he said.
To reach Manitoba Hydro for electric or natural gas emergencies, people can call (204) 480-5900 if they’re in Winnipeg, or 1 (888) 624-9376 out of town.
Burrows also recommends a buy-back or give-back program for unsafe heaters, similar to Manitoba Hydro’s program for old refrigerators.
WFPS would be happy to explore the idea, but it wouldn’t happen overnight, WFPS assistant chief Scott Wilkinson said.
WFPS is open to improving the city’s fire prevention program and is already working with organizations and people, including Burrows, Wilkinson told Global News on Tuesday.
“We’re certainly exploring all options to get the message out in some of those communities,” Wilkinson said. “Certainly not everyone is on the normal media channels and things like that, that we might be able to utilize.“
“We’re actively working on that communications piece right now with Sel and other community agencies because they’re well-connected in those communities, and (we’re) hoping to expand that in the coming months or weeks and months.”
WFPS also offers education through its annual fall Fire Prevention Week, Youth Fire Stop Program and their website, along with community and school presentations, the WFPS spokesperson said.
“I am hoping that the public is going to insist that we get a fire prevention program,” Burrows said. “We’ve got really good firefighters, but I’d rather they weren’t very busy.”
City needs better by-law communication, enforcement
Burrows says unsafe wiring cranks up the risk of fire, but not everyone knows the right protocol.
“We’ve got a lot of old houses where they still have knob-and-tube wiring,” he said.
Tenants should contact their landlord and the City of Winnipeg’s by-law enforcement by calling or texting 311 right away for an inspector, if they see plugs sparking or wires smoking, Burrows said.
“By-law enforcement, which is responsible for checking on these things … and fire safety, they haven’t got a clear messaging system to get it out that people should call,” Burrows said, adding that people often don’t want to wait on hold to speak with a 311 agent.
He commends the city for having one of the best livability by-laws in North America.
“But if nobody knows what the rights are, that’s the problem,” he said. “Tenants’ rights are there, but the enforcement and the support of the tenants is very weak.”
Global News has reached out to the city for comment.
Visits to sub-standard houses would also help, Burrows said. But commercial and residential by-law inspections aren’t going ahead in person right now due to COVID-19 safety measures, according to the city’s website.
Wilkinson, however, says fire prevention inspections are still happening, but those don’t include one and two-family dwellings.
“We do not have a mandate or jurisdiction to access those homes, unfortunately.”
Global News has also reached out to the province for comment.