'Stringent provisions are in place': Canadian cities well prepared for highrise fires, say fire officials

Strict building codes and regulations combined with well-trained firefighters mean that Canada's three largest cities are well prepared for blazes like the deadly fire that engulfed the highrise apartment building in London, Canadian fire officials say.

Officials say our building codes and regulations should prevent a blaze like the one that killed 17 in London

At least 12 people were killed and dozens more injured in the blaze that engulfed the 24-storey highrise apartment building in west London's North Kensington district on Wednesday. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Strict building codes and regulations combined with well-trained firefighters mean that Canada's three largest cities are well prepared for blazes like the deadly fire that engulfed the highrise apartment building in London, Canadian fire officials say.

"Under the building code, very, very stringent regulations, very stringent provisions are in place," Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg told CBC's News Network on Wednesday.

I live in a highrise condo, and I can tell you that I feel very safe.- Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg

At least 12 people were killed and dozens more injured in the blaze that engulfed the 24-storey highrise apartment building in west London's North Kensington district Wednesday morning.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but some survivors told Britain's Guardian newspaper they had raised concerns about the absence of a building-wide fire alarm or sprinkler system and that there was only one escape route.

In Ontario, the building code contains detailed provisions with respect to fire safety, Pegg said.

All highrise residential buildings are non-combustible construction, meaning they are made with materials such as brick, cement, metal, glass or stone, and built on a principle of compartmentalization — a construction method that helps contain a fire to within one or a few units, he said.

As well, fire services maintains a comprehensive list of every highrise residential building in the city, and they have inspected every single building since 2015.

"I live in a highrise condo, and I can tell you that I feel very safe," Pegg said.

However, older buildings are bound by less strict regulations. Three people were killed last year in a fire that broke out in a Toronto apartment building housing seniors. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop said that the building, built prior to 2007, was compliant with the codes for its time, which didn't require sprinklers in every room and hallway.

"If sprinklers had been installed to today's standard, the outcome would have been different," Jessop said then.

In Quebec, firefighter students must complete at least 90 hours of training that focuses on highrise building fires. Montreal fire departments keep a detailed technical file on each highrise building, which must also meet strict construction codes, said Benoit Leclerc, who works for the city's fire department and is an instructor specializing in highrise building fires at Montreal's École Polytechnique.

The structures must have interiors and exteriors built with incombustible materials.

They must also have elevator shafts and staircases adapted for residents to be able to flee, and emergency services to gain access. Alarm, drain and sprinkler systems in highrise buildings are also more complex compared to those in smaller structures.

'Complex and effective fire protections'

Vancouver Fire and Rescue spokesperson Jonathan Gormick said the chances of a fire similar to the blaze in London occurring in B.C. "are virtually non-existent."

"All our highrises are very compartmentalized," Gormick told CBC News. "They have very complex and effective fire protections and life-safety systems that all work together to get fires out quickly and absolutely confine them to the suite of origin."

All highrises are sprinklered, he said, and if a fire ignites in a suite, it's often knocked down before firefighters arrive.

Also, buildings must have more than one staircase that can serve as an emergency exit, Gormick said. 

What to do in case of a highrise fire

According to the Toronto fire and safety website,  residents need to decide whether they should leave the building to safety or stay put because it's safer. If a resident hears the fire alarm and the choice is to leave the building, they should:

  • Leave as soon as possible.
  • Before opening any door, feel the door handle and the door itself, starting from the bottom, moving to the top. If the door is not hot, open it slightly.
  • Close the door quickly if you see or smell smoke, or feel or hear air pressure or a hot draft.
  • If free of fire or smoke, leave the building by the nearest exit stairwell, closing all doors after you.
  • If you encounter smoke in a stairwell, consider taking an alternate stairwell. 

Toronto Fire District Chief Peter Derrington told CBC News back in February that residents who cannot get out right away should get a wet towel, roll it up and place it at the bottom of any door out to the corridor.  

"You want to block that air circulation, because that's where the smoke is going to come in," he said. "Then you have the very handy duct tape, and you can start duct-taping around the door frame and just seal it up."

Residents should then call 911 and report that they can't leave their suite.

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      The Toronto fire and safety website says residents who cannot leave their unit or have returned to it because of fire or heavy smoke, should also:

      • Move to the balcony or to the most protected room and partially open a window for air. Close the window if smoke enters.
      • Keep low to the floor.
      • Signal firefighters by waving a white sheet or towel.
      • Wait to be rescued. Remain calm. Don't panic or jump.

      Derrington said people should not try to make it to the roof.

      "That's a Hollywood myth," he said. "We don't have helicopters. We cannot rescue people off the roof."