Edmonton fire chief looking for solutions after four homeless people die in fires

Edmonton fire Chief Joe Zatylny is looking at an initiative from Surrey, B.C. as a possible solution to prevent fires in vacant and abandoned buildings. 

Surrey, B.C., cracked down on abandoned properties through proactive program

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services Chief Joe Zatylny took over from former chief Ken Block in June 2020. (Edmonton Fire Rescue Services)

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS) Chief Joe Zatylny is looking at an initiative from Surrey, B.C., as a possible solution to preventing fires in vacant and abandoned buildings. 

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Zatylny said tackling the issue is one of his priorities for 2022. His list also includes increasing diversity EFRS and looking after the mental health of frontline staff. 

Zatylny is concerned about the recent fire-related deaths of four people experiencing homelessness.

Two of the fires were in abandoned and empty buildings. 

"We're seeing too many fires in vacant buildings that should be secure," Zatylny said. 

"It's as innocent as people trying to stay warm and people just trying to eat. We need to help them and find a way to make sure that those buildings remain secure."

Zatylny said staff are working on a fire safety plan directed at the homeless population.

He's also interested in looking at the Surrey Distressed Properties program that started in 2017 and reduced the number of fires in vacant and abandoned buildings by 94 per cent, according to a report from September 2021.

Under the program, the Surrey Fire Service regularly inspects vacant and derelict buildings. 

If a property is deemed to be a fire risk, the service can compel owners to provide better security, demolish or improve the structures within a prescribed period of time. The municipality can deal with non-compliant owners by tearing down the structure and sending them the bill. 

Zatylny said Edmonton hasn't looked at this type of measure before but he is interested in exploring it with council and other levels of government.

"Do we have the authority?" he asked. "Is the legislation there to be able to move down this road?

"We believe we're at a time where there's too much risk to the members of the public and our own firefighters…We don't want to lose any more lives in these structures."

Four Edmontonians experiencing homelessness died in fire-related events in the past two months. One died following a fire at the former Dwayne's Home building in downtown Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)

Drug poisonings up 

Zatylny became fire chief in June 2020 in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the challenges faced by the EFRS is the spike in calls for opioid poisonings.

While the total number of calls have tripled from pre-pandemic days, Zatylny said they went up seven times in the summer months.

He said firefighters are facing complex situations when they arrive at a call. Sometimes fire crews are responding to four or five calls to help one person in one night. Other times they encounter multiple people in medical distress. 

"It doesn't seem like we're making an impact in this fight against opioids during this pandemic," Zatylny said.

Advocates point to the province's decision to close the safe consumption site at the Boyle Street Community Services as one factor in the rise of drug poisonings. The George Spady Centre is the only safe consumption site in Edmonton's inner city. It now operates around the clock. 

Zatylny said the issue is complex and it is hard to say what impact the closure had on the number of drug poisonings. He said EFRS, Alberta Health Services and the Edmonton Police Service have different sets of data. 

Zatylny said solving the issue requires a unified effort. 

"How can the three of us at the very least, work more closely together and help provide better outcomes to the people that we serve?" he asked.

The shortage of EMS in Alberta is another issue that alarmed municipal leaders in 2021. 

In 2018, the average time firefighters spent on an EMS call was six minutes and 25 seconds. Zatylny says it jumped to nine minutes and 30 seconds in 2021. 

Zatylny says longer response times on EMS calls creates possible delays for fire calls as units need to be dispatched from other locations across the city. 

In 2021, EFRS introduced two new programs to help firefighters with mental health. Zatylny said the service worked with Wounded Warriors, a national organization military veterans and first responders with mental health, on a new stress management program for recruits.

A grant from the province helped with the development of a new mental health and wellness smartphone app to help staff reach skills training and access to training.

As for diversity, the fire service welcomed three new female recruits but Zatylny said more needs to be done. EFRS plans to do more outreach and recruitment in 2022.