CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » PUBLIC
You have less than a minute to escape a
fire in a public place ... Could you?
Broadcast: January 4, 2000
At a soccer pitch in
Bradford, England several years ago, people watched
as an entire section of the stadium erupted in flames.
Picture yourself on the subway on the way home from work.
You smell smoke; you see flames on the other escalator going
up to the street. What do you think you would do?
When it happened in London, England, most commuters did
nothing to change their routine. Thirty-one died. And now
there is a new breed of scientist who predicts you would do
the same thing.
They are scientific firefighters, and what they have to say about human behaviour
will surprise you. It could also save lives, they say, if the engineers and architects
who build our shopping centres, our subways and other public places would listen.
"This is what I call management by disaster," says Guylene
Proulx, one of only 200 scientific firefighters worldwide
"We often wait for disasters to occur to change the regulation
and to adapt and to change the plan to reflect what we've
learned from a disaster."
"This is what I call
management by disaster," says Guylene
Proulx, who works for the National Research Council in Ottawa,
adds: "I truly believe that this kind of work can save lives.
Absolutely. That's why I do it."
Proulx watches one particularly horrific example of human
behaviour during a very public fire. At a soccer pitch in
Bradford, England several years ago, people watched as an
entire section of the stadium erupted in flames.
The soccer fans were so intent on the game, they ignored
the flames until it was too late -- the same phenomenon Proulx
studied in a London subway fire.
This research could be used to make Canadian public spaces
safer, she says. If fire broke out in a cinema for example,
you'd think it obvious to stop the movie.
"Yeah, that seems obvious," Proulx says, "but ... well, building
managers often are not prepared to go that far because they
feel they can control the situation.
"This kind of behaviour has led to pretty terrible tragedies because if
the situation become out of control, then people have a very short time to get
out of the building."
How short? Sometimes less than a minute. That's how much
fire safety experts say you have when the alarm goes off.
Such a short interval is made worse by our tendency to ignore
fire warnings, Proulx adds. About 75 percent of us assume
a fire alarm is nothing more than a false alarm.
But why don't fire alarms alarm anyone? Confusion is one
reason. There are too many different sounds. Proulx's research
has already led to changes in the National Fire Code and
the National Building Code, the bibles for architects
The codes are essentially blueprints for safe buildings
and now mandate such measures as a uniform sound for alarms
in new buildings. Mandatory strips that glow in the dark in
stairwells are under consideration for the next code.
That latter idea came after a close look at the escape of
25,000 office workers caught in the World Trade Center fire
in New York -- 25,000 people who had to make it down 110 stories.
A myth was shattered in that fire, the myth that people
in such situations panic. "From all our research... there
is no panic in fire," Proulx says.
Is this research being ignored by those who design the
plans for emergency evacuations? Well, if fire broke out
at the Bay in downtown Toronto, you'd never hear the word "fire"
over the intercom because the man in charge says privately,
it'll make you think 'Towering Inferno!'
"We have our codes ...
for internal use,"
says The Bay's Scott Crowley.
According to Scott Crowley, during a fire at The Bay "you
would hear a code specifically designed for the fire safety
plan. We have our codes ... for internal use."
That means intercom messages like code red, code blue, and
Firestone. As in, "Mr. Firestone, you're wanted at level two."
"Our procedures do not use the word 'fire,'" Crowley notes.
But Proulx says that might not be the best plan. "If you
try to go around and use technical jargon ... for the public
not to know what's going on, you won't have any reaction from
people," she says. "To tell people the truth is the best way
to have them move."
Marketplace went to the Eaton Centre to see
if the codes aimed at floor staff work.
Marketplace went to the Eaton Centre to see if the
codes aimed at floor staff work. After all, in case of fire,
these are the people researchers tell us we will turn to.
But staff there weren't much help. Some told us what sound
the fire alarm makes, but added that the instructions that
follow over the public address system are almost inaudible
And even if they know there's a fire alarm sounding, other
staff are unclear about what to do. "I don't know," said one.
"Well, should we pack up our bags and go? No one else that
I'm working with is. None of the customers are."
We asked the staff member what it would take to force them to just leave: "Fire
right outside my door, probably," they responded.
One set of directions
led to a door labelled "authorized personnel only".
Even then, finding the right fire exit might not be too easy.
One set of directions Marketplace followed led to
a door labelled "authorized personnel only." It might be a
fire door, but it's not clear.
Proulx, for her part, isn't surprised at Marketplace's
findings, "because in Canada we haven't had a big fire event
in a shopping centre so far.
"If you do management by disaster, we will probably need
a big disaster in a shopping centre for people to look into
fire safety in premises like that."
Cadillac Fairview, which owns the Eaton Centre, offers retail
tenants fire safety training four times a year. But training
for store staff is up to each store's management.
The Ontario Fire Marshall's office admits it hasn't got
the firefighters to check every building, every fire safety
plan. And as for rewriting laws, it's a slow process.
Joshy Kallungal, with the fire marshal’s office, says he "can't quite
agree with that statement that, you know, we are flying by our seat of our pants
... We are gaining more information through the human behaviour studies which
can enhance public safety."
"People, and all of us, have to take some
responsibility for our actions," says Kallungal.
So what of the assertion that Canada's fire safety practices
mean a public disaster is imminent? "I don't share that view,"
Kallungal says. "People, and all of us, have to take some
responsibility for our actions."
But staff can make the difference between life and death.
Ask Captain Al Speed. Twenty years ago, his fire department
tried to save people trapped in Canada's worst hotel fire
at the Inn on the Park. Six died. The coroner partly blamed
untrained staff at the hotel.
After that tragedy, Toronto's prestigious King Edward hotel
voluntarily spent millions upgrading its alarm systems.
We asked Captain Speed to do a test run on the staff in
the hotel. He gave full marks to the bellman who pointed out
the fire exits, but not the front desk:
We asked Captain Speed to do a test run on
the staff in the hotel.
"No reference to exits, no reference to fire safety and just
a total absence of any reference whatsoever," Speed said of
the desk staff.
From the staff's perspective, maybe that makes sense - they
don't want to talk about fire as soon as people check in to
their lovely hotel. "But fires do take place in hotels," Speed
says. "When it happens, it's their building. Now, what are
they doing to help the people who are in their building?"
Knowing you can't depend solely on staff, here's something
the chief of Canada's largest fire department expects you
to do every time you check in to a hotel: a dry run through
the fire exit and out the building.
"I've seen so much tragedy
in my career ... I realize it can happen to any one of
us at any time," says Captain Speed.
He also says to pack a
survival kit - duct tape, a flashlight and your own smoke
alarm with a working battery - to give you as many resources
as possible to survive a fire.
It may sound a bit awkward, but Speed expects everyone to
take these steps when they travel. "People die in fires. People
die in fires very often who haven't really thought of these
"I've seen so much tragedy in my career that I'm so
conscious of it and I realize it can happen to any one of
us at any time."
NEXT: Pack your own hotel fire kit »