Residential sprinklers save lives, Toronto firefighters say

Toronto firefighters often face greater danger in some residential fires than their Vancouver counterparts.

The difference is that fire sprinklers now protect close to 40 per cent of all Vancouver’s residences, according to Les Sziklai, a deputy chief with the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. Vancouver bylaws have required sprinklers in all new residential units since 1990.

“If we have fires in sprinklered buildings it turns into usually not much more than a cleanup of going to the building, stopping the water [and] putting out the spot fire,” Sziklai said. “[The fire] is usually contained to the one room.”

Sziklai said that there is “no comparison” between fighting a fire in a sprinkler-protected building versus one without. An average fire in a protected residence, he said, “would not be considered to be a very dangerous firefighting situation at all.”

Ontario is the last jurisdiction in North America where sprinkler systems are not mandatory in any residences. According to Deputy Chief Frank Lamie of the Toronto Fire Services, a residential fire in a sprinkler-protected residence would not spread as easily, create as much smoke or burn as hot as a fire in a residence without sprinklers. This would make it easier for residents to escape and for firefighters to battle the fire.

In residential buildings, small rooms filled with flammable materials create an environment where a fire raises the temperature quickly. Lamie said this may result in a phenomenon known as flashover, the main problem faced in residential fires.

“The combustibles in the room get hot enough that they spontaneously ignite so you get flames that shoot across the ceiling,” he said. “It draws the air out of the room. Of course the temperature just skyrockets, so if a firefighter is in there when that happens it is extremely dangerous.”

“[When a sprinkler is activated] you’re not going to get flashover,” Sziklai said. “You don’t end up with a lot of materials burning, and that now reduces toxic gasses and smoke . . . and you’re not going to get structural failure because the fire never has a chance to extend.”

Two recent fatal fires in Toronto have galvanized support behind the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs’ (OAFC) call to make sprinklers mandatory in all new residential units. One fire killed a mother and two of her children in their townhouse. Another fire destroyed an apartment and killed a 75-year-old man. Lamie said lives could have been saved by sprinklers.

“Had those been sprinklered, in the townhouse situation, I’m not sure the mother would have been saved, but for sure the children would have been,” Lamie said. “It would have contained the fire and the children would have had time to escape.”

Of 18 fire deaths in 2007 in Toronto, Lamie said that 14 would likely have been prevented by residential sprinkler systems.

According to Sziklai, from 1994 to the present, Vancouver has experienced only six fire deaths in sprinkler-protected residences.

Linda Jeffrey, MPP for Brampton-Springdale, said the Ontario government is considering making residential sprinklers mandatory in highrises of three stories or more. She said it would only require a simple amendment to the building code.